From the broadest possible perspective, the Oklahoma City Thunder prevailed on Thursday because they were quicker, more resourceful and, above all, much hungrier than the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Narrowing the focus, there are several more specific reasons why the Thunder won 101-96:
- After contributing practically nothing in the previous two games, James Harden came alive to score most of his 18 points in the first half. In doing so, the rookie was the driving (and shooting) force behind OKC's ability to stay in touch with the Lakers after a dismal start.
- Although Ron Artest continued to crowd Kevin Durant's jumpers, KD managed to knock down several important baskets and free throws in the clutch. Plus, his long-armed endgame defense on Kobe Bryant was sensational.
- Russell Westbrook is not a very good jump shooter. That's why whoever was guarding him routinely went under screens and generally played him loosely to inhibit his quick-stepping drives to the rim. Indeed, Westbrook was 2-for-8 on jumpers until clutch time, when he nailed a huge 3-pointer and then a pull-up from 15 feet.
- When Westbrook did manage to flash into the paint, he made seven of the subsequent eight shots that he attempted.
- Both Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison played terrific interior defense. When the Lakers initiated their half-court offense, Ibaka and Collison played behind their opponents (variously Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom). But just before the Lakers positioned the ball to make entry passes, Ibaka and Collison circled and then fronted L.A.'s bigs, thereby denying the intended passes. In addition, the Thunder provided excellent weak-side help (allowing only a single lob, catch and dunk to Bynum). That's why the visitors' pivot men totaled a measly eight points on inside moves.
- The other part of OKC's defensive game plan was to sink into the paint and make the Lakers shoot from long range. As a result, L.A. put up 31 3-pointers (making 10), which made for an unbalanced, top-heavy offense.
- Even though L.A.'s frontcourt had a considerable size advantage, OKC murdered them in the battle of the boards. The lopsided numbers favor the Thunder in offensive rebounds (14 to 7) as well as total rebounds (53 to 39). Sheer hustle and determination were the key factors here.
- In the end, the young Thunder simply never gave up and refused to be intimidated by the big, bad Lakers.
On the other hand, there are several reasons why the Lakers lost:
- Lamar Odom had another one of his now-you-see-him-now-you-don't games, shooting 3-for-7 for eight points.
- Gasol didn't get enough touches, hitting 7-for-12 for 17 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and dishing out six assists.
- Bynum made poor decisions on defense, as usual.
- Kobe did register eight assists and 24 points, but he was 2-for-10 in the fourth quarter and shot 10-for-29 overall.
- During a brief stretch in the fourth quarter when the two superstars went head-to-head at both ends of the court, Durant clearly outplayed Bryant and even blocked one of his jumpers. For most of the fourth quarter, Bryant totally dominated the ball and looked for his own scoring opportunities. The only passes he made were potential assist-passes. As a result, the triangle offense became one-dimensional and easy to defend.
- Because of the defensive adjustments made by Scott Brooks and his staff, the Lakers were never able to establish any interior offense. Instead of moving the ball and aggressively challenging the defense, the Lakers lazily settled for the first available perimeter shot.
- Whereas the Thunder forced only three shots/drives (two by Durant and one by Ibaka), the Lakers' total in this department amounted to 16 (four each by Jordan Farmar and Kobe, three by Fisher, two each by Odom and Artest and one by Bynum).
- The Lakers' secondary transition offense was unacceptable and led to numerous uncontested shots in OKC's early offense. The Lakers were unable to coordinate their defense when shooters curled off of weak-side screens.
- Durant shot more free throws (13) than the entire Lakers team (12). Was this due to the referees' bias? The Thunder's collapsing defense? Or the Lakers disinclination to aggressively attack the basket? Probably all three in equal measure.
- The Lakers never really recovered when the Thunder kept on keeping on after L.A. scored the game's initial 10 points. Hey, weren't these kids smart enough to know they were being thrashed by the champs and were supposed to play dead?
- Finally, L.A. was impatient and undisciplined.
Before the game, Brooks was presented with the Coach of the Year award. He now has exactly as many of these trophies as does Phil Jackson (1996 with Chicago). Jackson now has two days to figure out how to counteract Brooks' adjustments and to turn this latest COY award into a consolation prize.