Imagine this scenario for a moment, if you will. There’s two minutes to play. You’re up by 7 points. Game two of a playoff series in a game away from home against one of the league’s youngest, fittest and most athletics teams. You know that this game is a must win to regain home court advantage and gain a minor edge in the series. You have the momentum, the desire and the will to win. The game is as good as done, and all that is required is that you maintain the same level of intensity that you have for the last 46 minutes. It’s your opposition’s ball, and they utilize it well, driving to the bucket and cutting the lead to 5 and drawing the foul. They sink the free throw. The lead is cut to 4. You regroup and discuss the next play, but to no avail. Another lost ball, this time at the hands of your most trusted player, results in a turnover and a fast break dunk at the other end. Your lead is now 2.
Surely now you begin to wonder how to stop this apparent onslaught. This is desperate. This is where you need to step up. 20 seconds on the clock. Coach calls a timeout, draws up a play and you step back out on the pine to defend with your life the two points that separate victory and defeat. But then the impossible happens. Within the space of 2 seconds the ball is lost. Another turnover. Your opposition runs the floor and sets up their 3 point specialist with a gift. He drains it. You now trail by 1 with 18.6 seconds on the clock. Where do you go from here?
You have options. There’s still time to seal this. Coach draws up a play that requires you to dribble down the clock, and shoot the game winner with minimal seconds left to leave your opposition with no chance at redemption. Your at the point where you need a hero. Your guard winds down the clock. 6, 5, 4… there’s a pass. Your opposition has left your three point shooter open in the corner. He has the best look of the day. A wide open three point opportunity. He shoots the ball, it floats through the air, bounces off the rim and into the hands of your opposition. Buzzer.
This was the exact plot of a game yesterday in the 2012 NBA Playoffs in a match up between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers. Elation for the Thunder, heart break for the Lakers. A game that was undoubtedly theirs for the taking, swept out from under their feat with mere seconds on the clock. It was nobody’s fault but their own that they let the Thunder back into the game and take the win via a 9-0 run in two minutes. But where did L.A. go wrong? They are not a team known for choking and this was a very uncharacteristic ending for them.
During the course of the aftermath, the team was criticized for looking to Steve Blake to bury a clutch 3 while only down 1. Why send the ball to the corner when you have Bynum and Gasol in the paint? Why not go to Kobe Bryant to dig them out of the whole yet again? The fact is it was the best opportunity the Lakers had for points in the final 2 minutes of the game. It wasn’t just the only option, it was also the right one. That shot is not at all why the Lakers lost this game.
Throughout the previous 46 minutes the Lakers had managed to slow the game down to their tempo and take it away from the Thunder. They had used the ball perfectly and piled the pressure on OKC, forcing turnovers and feeding the ball inside to Bynum and Gasol who were converting their shots. The Lakers had played the Thunder exactly the right way for 98% of this game, but it was the final minutes that would tell the story for L.A. and ensure the game was remembered as one of the darker affairs in recent history.
Letting OKC back into the game through two Kobe Bryant turnovers, silly passes and weak defense was where the Thunder capitalized. Picking up every mistake and making it count at the other end. This was the reason the Lakers lost this game. Not because Steve Blake shot the ball from three with 2 seconds left. It seems like a distant memory, but Blake was also the guy who shot 5/5 from three point range in game 7 against the Denver Nuggets ensuring the Lakers would play Oklahoma. He had every right to shoot that ball. He just missed. It happens.
Oklahoma are to be credited for their will to never give up and even when the game seems lost, smell the blood in the water. This is why they are a real Championship contender and a team to be feared and revered. The Lakers seem lost right now. They lack continuity, unity and direction. They don’t look like a team capable of achieving the greatest prize of all, and yesterday’s unbelievable collapse proves it. They will have two chances to redeem themselves and avoid the sweep as they head back to Los Angeles for games 3 and 4. The question isn’t can the Lakers progress past the Thunder, it’s can they avoid being completely embarrassed by them and head into the offseason with their heads held high knowing in their heart that they gave it their all and can come back next year harder, better, faster and stronger.