Lakers Use Stifling Defense To Take Series Lead
Andrew Bynum and the Los Angeles Lakers turned up the defensive intensity for Game 5, and it showed. Their demolition of the Thunder was based on two simple principles, protecting the paint and defending in transition, executed to perfection.
Whenever the Thunder tried taking the ball inside they were stymied, first by the defense of Bynum, who closed off the paint and prevented any Thunder big men from consistently getting good post position, and second by the Lakers strategy of packing the paint with three or four players (including 7 footers Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom, along with defensive standouts Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant), giving the Thunder no room to operate.
This strategy may have backfired if the referees had called this game uncharacteristically tight, but the zebras opted to let the teams play, especially in the first half, only sending players to the line when there was particularly egregious contact.
Because of the Lakers' dominance in the paint, in the half court the smaller Thunder were forced into settling for outside jumpshots, their kryptonite. Making matters worse, their only dangerous jump shooter, Kevin Durant, was bothered all night by the stellar defense of Artest, who gave Durant no room to operate, a strategy which worked excellently when combined with the Lakers' successful efforts to protect the paint.
The second key to the Lakers triumph was their transition defense. The Lakers used their exceptional length and athleticism to disrupt and derail the Thunder attack. Oklahoma City roasted Los Angeles in transition in Game 4, but the Lakers were ready for it in Game 5, hustling back on every play, and not allowing an uncontested transition basket while the game was competitive.
Once the Lakers were hustling back on every play, they used their superior length to get into the passing lanes, making life hell for Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, who finished with eight turnovers. Even when the Thunder made it to the basket, the Lakers were still able to block, contest, and alter shots, turning what should have been easy scoring opportunities into fast breaks headed the other way. Deprived of baskets in transition and in the paint, the Thunder were forced to rely on contested jump shots, seldom a winning formula.
On the other side of the ball, the Thunder gave a good effort, but couldn't stop the Laker offense. They generally played very good defense at the point of attack, but the Lakers were making an extra pass or two on every possession, and the Thunder's rotations couldn't keep up, leading to easy lay-ups for Gasol, Artest, and company. However, even if OKC's rotations had been crisper, they would still have been in trouble as Bynum and Gasol were able to get excellent position in the low post against Nenad Kristic and Jeff Green whenever they wanted, leading to easy baskets of the assisted and put-back varieties.
The only man able to contain the Laker bigs at all was Thunder center Nick Collison, who played for a ten minute stretch in the late first quarter and early second quarter. Collison, the only member of the Thunder to draw a charge on Tuesday, replaced Kristic at center and was able to keep the Lakers guards from penetrating at will, as well as preventing Bynum from setting up shop in front of the basket. This forced the Lakers to settle for more jumpers. Not coincidentally, this stretch of the ballgame was mildly competitive, the Thunder only losing 21-18. However, once Kristic returned to the game, the lay-up line resumed, en route to the trouncing.