Lakers-Thunder: LA Proves Experience Still Matters in 111-87 Game Five Victory
The 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers accomplished something that hadn't been done in 20 years: They became the first NBA Finals runner-up since the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons to win a championship the following season.
If you were to look at the 20 championships won in the years between, you'd realize how big a part experience plays.
Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls managed to repeat four times en route to six titles. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers did it twice on their way to a three-peat, and Olajuwon's Houston Rockets did it once in winning consecutive rings in 1994 and 1995.
Even the Tim Duncan-led Spurs, who never won a back-to-back title, could cull from their experiences of previous championships in winning three more titles between 2003 and 2007.
It also didn't hurt that the Spurs won their first title in the 1999 strike-shortened, Michael Jordan-less season.
Of those three teams, the Celtics were the only ones who didn't play in the conference finals the previous season. But that Celtics team added Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, James Posey, and P.J. Brown—experienced veterans who weren't on the team the year before.
So it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the Lakers were able to regroup Tuesday and defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in what was probably their most impressive victory since beating the Celtics in Boston back on Jan. 31.
Xs and Os matter. But when push comes to shove, sometimes it's the mental that gets you over the top.
Tuesday night's game was a little bit of both.
Phil Jackson decided to do something he probably should have done much earlier in the series—he let Kobe Bryant guard Russell Westbrook, and put Derek Fisher on the offensively-challenged Thabo Sefolosha in an attempt to revoke Westbrook's "EZPass" to the basket.
As a result, the Thunder, who had so much success on fast breaks in Games Three and Four, didn't score a fast-break basket until there were less than two minutes left in the first half.
The other big move by Jackson was to limit the team's three-point attempts—the culprit in giving up so many fast-break points earlier in the series.
The Lakers only shot 14 three-pointers, making five of them. When they did take three-point shots, the other four Lakers were already running back on defense to prevent a fast break.
There was one particular possession in which Jordan Farmar turned the ball over with two seconds on the shot clock because he thought Shannon Brown was spotting up for a three-pointer. But Brown was already back on defense—thinking that Farmar was going to shoot the ball, so the pass sailed out of bounds.
The Lakers' 111-87 victory now puts the shoe on the other foot. It's now the Thunder who will have to answer questions heading into Friday night's Game Six.
What will Thunder head coach Scott Brooks do to prevent the Lakers from getting so many easy baskets down low? What will he do to change the tempo back to one that better suits his youthful and athletic team?
Brooks has options, but each comes with its own pluses and minuses.
He can play the offensive-minded James Harden more minutes in place of the defensive-minded Sefolosha to exploit the defensively-challenged Fisher. But then, he won't have his best defender guarding Bryant on the other end.
He can put the shot-blocking machine known as Serge Ibaka into the starting lineup in place of Nenad Krstic—the better offensive player—but he'll lose the pick-and-roll option Krstic gives them late in the shot clock.
This is Brooks' first time coaching in the playoffs, and he was thrown into the deep end having to match wits with a coach with 10 rings (11 if you include the one he won as a player).
The Lakers' experience was as evident in what they did in between Games Four and Five as it was in the way they played in Game Five.
While their fans were in panic mode and the rest of the country was writing them off, they walked the tightrope between understanding the importance of Game Five while downplaying the the significance in the Thunder holding serve.
The Lakers victory sent a message to all of their doubters that they still possess the ability to play championship-caliber basketball and have a size advantage that only Cleveland can compete with.
Even if they don't play as well on Friday night, there's a comfort that Lakers fans can revel in knowing it's still there.
The Lakers are 13 wins from another championship. As that number shrinks, expect their swagger to further emanate. They are no longer chasing a ring so much as chasing history.
Nobody should be surprised if the Lakers close this series out on Friday. The Lakers went 4-1 in elimination games last season—closing out both of their last two series in Denver and Orlando, respectively.
In my article on Monday I mentioned that the Lakers were the recipients of two dog clichés—those being kicked while down and those who were sleeping.
On Tuesday night they woke up and stood up.
Andrew Ungvari is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report and co-lead blogger for basketball website, SirCharlesInCharge.com.
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