After the first four games, it's very believable that the Los Angeles Lakers should be and could be up 3-1 on the Oklahoma City Thunder. But with two blown games in the last minute of play, the Lakers have nothing to be proud about, showing signs of fatigue while lacking the killer instinct that led to back-to-back championships two years ago.
The Thunder dominated the Lakers in Game 1, controlling the tempo of the game while committing only four turnovers. The Lakers' biggest weaknesses all season have been defending the point guard and transition defense.
But following the 29-point blowout in Oklahoma, the Lakers seemingly had finally figured out how to beat the Thunder. By feeding the ball in the post to the seven-footers, controlling the pace and slowing down the game, the Lakers transformed the game into a boxing match. No team ever was too far out of reach, and no team had a safe lead.
While the Lakers capitalized on this game plan in Game 3, they blew it in Games 2 and 4, changing the entire dynamic of the series. Instead of going back to Oklahoma up 3-1, dominating the young boys with a killer KO in the final round, it was Durant who played the former role of Kobe as sharp shooter and Mr. clutch.
Now, facing elimination tonight in Oklahoma against the toughest crowd in the NBA, the Lakers will need an all-star performance from everyone. This means Bryant will have to play the way he did in Game 3, dominating the scoreboard and getting to the free-throw line. World Peace has been fantastic all series, and he must continue to play stellar defense and bring the always elusive energy to the lethargic Lakers.
Which Bench Player is the Key to Game 5?
Matt Barnes, who has been absolutely atrocious this series, needs to find a way to score, as does Ramon Sessions, who upped his aggressiveness in Game 4 but still only managed 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting. Three-point shooting has been and will be the key to this game. If Steve Blake, Metta World Peace and Ramon Sessions can make shots from long range, it will be a close game.
But above all else, the key will be the big men. While Bynum has played well, Perkins has matched him. Not until Game 4 did Bynum start hitting his shots. Bynum should have a strong game, as long as he gets his touches. Bryant went into "hero mode" down the stretch and ultimately, it cost the Lakers the game. He ignored the fundamentals and tried to do it all by himself. Kobe has put some blame on Gasol, and he isn't wrong for doing so. Pau has been the most elusive player on the team the last two seasons.
Gasol has been playing trick-or-treat, showing up at times, grabbing rebound after rebound, and making open shots at the elbow and in the post. However, he's also been known to get timid, a quality that many of the Lakers players seem to have down the stretch. No play killed the Lakers more than Pau's horrendous pass and terrible decision-making, leading to the Durant three that pushed the Lakers to the brink of elimination.
In order for the Lakers to win, Gasol must play a complete game. He needs to be the all-star Pau that helped lead the Lakers to two straight titles. He can't disappear for gaps. Jordan Hill has been fantastic off the bench, but that's just it—his tenacity and energy needs to spread to Pau.
James Harden has killed the Lakers this series, with his play embodying the entire Thunder movement. They are a young team with a fantastic, bright future ahead of them. They have nothing to lose, and they are playing like it. That energy and confidence is what won them the games down the stretch, as opposed to the Lakers' fearfulness in the last two minutes.
Without a doubt, this is not the same Lakers team we saw two years ago.
If the Lakers make their threes, play transition defense well and have strong showings from Gasol and Bynum, they will win Game 5.
That is a lot of "ifs," though.