Here are a few aspects of the victory we will analyze:
Rebounds – We always start with rebounds, and today is no different. The Lakers out-rebounded the Thunder 67-54 (25-14 on the offensive glass) and it’s one of the reasons they were able to stay in the game. With huge contributions from Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol on the boards (15 and 14 rebounds, respectively), the Lakers were able to limit the Thunder to single-shot opportunities and also provided second-chance opportunities for themselves with their offensive rebounds (six offensive rebounds apiece).
Metta World Peace – When watching the incident in real time, it appeared as if World Peace’s elbow to James Harden’s head was inadvertent, and was simply a result of an inspired celebration. However, during the slow-motion replay, it appeared that World Peace felt Harden moving into his air space and threw the elbow as if to say “get outta my way!”
In a post-game statement, World Peace apologized to the Thunder and stated that the elbow was unintentional and unfortunate. Metta seemed genuine in his apology, but given his reputation, it is likely that he will face a tough multiple-game suspension.
There is no question the incident happened very fast an in the heat of the moment, but the league will likely hand down a harsh punishment nonetheless. In the meantime, the Lakers must collectively step up and help replace what World Peace brings to the team. He had been playing extremely well over the past few weeks and will undoubtedly be missed on the court.
Kobe Bryant – The Black Mamba did it again. He helped his team stay calm and focused during the game, and then when it was time to go to work, he did. Kobe hit some unbelievably incredible shots down the stretch of regulation, and then again in both overtime periods. With the pressure on in a playoff-type game, the Black Mamba schooled everyone on the floor on how to not only close out games, but also strike when within distance of winning. He may not have started out the game well, but he definitely showed why he is still the most dangerous player in crunch time.
Not only that, but Kobe guarded Russell Westbrook for much of the game and absolutely hounded him down the stretch. Bryant helped hold Westbrook to just 3-for-22 shooting, and allowed the pesky point guard just 14 points as opposed to his 24-points-per-game average.
Jordan Hill – Jordan Hill had played no significant minutes for the Lakers before yesterday’s game, but Mike Brown decided to throw him into one of the biggest games of the year. Good decision, coach! Hill came through huge for the Lakers, scoring 14 points and pulling down 15 rebounds in 35 minutes of play. Not only this, but Brown opted to go with him for the duration of the fourth quarter and both overtime periods.
Andrew Bynum was not playing well for whatever reason, but this paid dividends for Jordan Hill and the Lakers and may have been a blessing in disguise. With Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy being inconsistent, perhaps we will see more of Hill in the playoffs. He will undoubtedly have some ups and downs while still learning the system, but if he can bring the kind of effort he did against the Thunder, he will be another option the Lakers can utilize off the bench.
Devin Ebanks – Another blessing in disguise was perhaps Metta World Peace’s ejection. Obviously, the incident will have more long-term repercussions for the Lakers, but the fact that Metta was ejected in a big-time game gave Devin Ebanks an opportunity to prove himself. Mike Brown opted to play Ebanks in the fourth quarter instead of Matt Barnes, and he was able to be effective offensively. Then, the match-up that many of us had wondered about (or at least this author did) came to fruition: Ebanks vs. Durant.
Ebanks has similar length and stature to that of Durant, and was actually able to bother Durant quite a bit. Ebanks even had a crucial steal down the stretch. If these two teams were to meet in the playoffs down the road, Ebanks has some sort of experience guarding Durant and coach Brown now has some confidence in him as well.
Additionally, Ebanks provided some offensive rebounding and was able to draw multiple fouls (he was the recipient of 10 free throws; the most on the team). If he can maintain his activity level, he too will be an asset for the Lakers going forward. There’s no question that he will be forced into an increased role with Metta World Peace’s likely impending suspension.
Steve Blake – When Derek Fisher was traded, it was evident that someone must step up and fill his shoes in crunch time. Fisher may not have been consistent during games, but he was consistently clutch and made big plays when it mattered. Ramon Sessions showed some signs of making big plays during big games, but yesterday against the Thunder, Steve Blake was the one who proved himself. Mike Brown again opted to play an unexpected player down the stretch, and it paid off; Blake hit three huge three-pointers down the stretch of the game.
Blake is sometimes a bit too unselfish and perhaps not always confident in his shot, but perhaps the confidence that coach Brown and Kobe had in him yesterday afternoon helped him perform well. It is unknown whether Blake will get to play down the stretch during the playoffs, but he proved himself as a clutch performer yesterday. Mike Brown will have confidence in him going forward and it won’t be a surprise to anyone if we see more of Steve Blake down the stretch of playoff games.
Ramon Sessions has no experience in the playoffs, so Blake could be extremely crucial for the Lakers going forward. Even if he doesn’t play much down the stretch of games, he must still bring the same focus he had yesterday and be a factor off the bench for this team to be successful. If he plays as well as he did yesterday, however, he could very well see himself closing out games alongside the Black Mamba.
Pau Gasol – We have been giving Gasol his due praise over the last few editions of “The Breakdown”, and he continues to deserve it. Yesterday, Gaosl delivered a steady dose of scoring, rebounding, and assisting en route to 20 points, 14 rebounds, and nine assists. With Andrew Bynum on the bench, Gasol had to be the focal point down low and the defensive anchor as well.
When Gasol is focused, as he has been over the past few weeks, the Lakers are an extremely tough team to beat. Bynum is still learning and growing, but Gasol is a polished veteran and is still the second best player on this team. He has stepped up and appears to be in playoff mode, which is a great sign for Lakers fans.
Mike Brown – Can we give Mike Brown a little credit? Plenty of fans love to blame coach Brown when things don’t go well for the Lakers, but are hesitant to give him credit when they win big games. Yesterday, Brown didn’t like what he saw out of Andrew Bynum, and opted to go with Jordan Hill in his stead. Additionally, he felt that Steve Blake and Devin Ebanks could perhaps help the Lakers more than Ramon Sessions and Matt Barnes could against the Thunder.
The match-ups paid off, as the odd lineup sliced away at the lead, and was instrumental at the end of regulation and in both overtime periods. We have to laud coach Brown for sticking with the lineup that worked instead of bringing in his usual closers. This will inevitably pay dividends for everyone (Lakers players, coaches, and fans alike) as there are new-found options for the Lakers.
It’s no secret that the Lakers lack depth compared with other teams, but perhaps this team’s bench has situational talent that, if utilized correctly, can help them win ball games. Mike Brown has toyed with the lineup all season long, and perhaps he will continue to do this throughout the playoffs. Traditionally, there are set rotations in the post-season, but if Brown can somehow get what he needs out of certain players in certain match-ups, it could work. The positive here is that the Lakers will be facing a single team for at least four games at a time in the playoffs. Brown can figure out which players work against which teams, and set rotations accordingly. It wouldn’t be a shock if we saw five or more reserve players receive significant minutes over the course of two or three playoffs rounds.
The Lakers lost a key player to their team and will likely be without him for a number of games. They faltered, and almost fell flat after. Then, with an unlikely cast of players, they staged a comeback against one of the most explosive teams in the league.They may have lost one player and saw other players not perform up to par, but a new cast of role players emerged in lieu of this. Most importantly, the player with the starring “role” proved once again that he is the most dangerous man in big games.