— Kobe Bryant called it a grind-it-out kind of game. Like the owner of one of those hairless cats, he had the decency to admit, “It wasn’t pretty.”
The question is whether the Lakers’ thoroughly pedestrian 87-79 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder is indicative of where the Lakers are as a team as they set off to defend their 2009 NBA title. If it is, it’s going to be a long and grueling and ugly journey, one characterized by smothering defense and not by thrilling offense.
The problems with these sorts of games are that you can use them to prove anything you want and they are the first games in a playoff season that’s going to run for two months. You can read way too much into it.
You could, for example, decide off the evidence of Game 1 of Series 1 that the Lakers are not running like the well-oiled machine that rolled to a championship last year. Kobe Bryant, who’s been fighting injuries, wasn’t a dominant force. He picked his spots to turn it up a notch, always when the Thunder started to think they could compete with the Lakers. But for the most part, he was just another player out there.
In fact, nobody on the Lakers was a dominant offensive force. On the other hand, none of them stunk. They spread the ball around, got 16 points off the bench, dominated the boards and played tight defense.
Against the Thunder, the youngest team in the NBA and one making its first playoff appearance since its move to Oklahoma City, that was more than enough. Oklahoma’s offensive star, Kevin Durant, is obviously talented, as is guard Russell Westbrook, but they’re just kids, and Durant’s first-game nerves were obvious.
Also obvious was the wisdom the Lakers showed in hiring career bad actor Ron Artest. Artest, who’s taken to dying his hair like Dennis Rodman used to, is there to play defense. Phil Jackson told him to guard Durant, and that’s what Artest did. He did it very well, and unless Durant can put 20 pounds of muscle on his anorexic frame between now and Game 2, he will continue to do it well.
It’s a great luxury to have so much offense at other positions that you can have one player whose only job is to play defense or rebound or perform some other unsung but vital chore. And it’s a sign of great maturity on the part of Artest to understand that the way to stay in the league and keep collecting those munificent paychecks is to volunteer for the dirty jobs. Hey, it worked for Mike Rowe, why not Ron Artest?
A lot of people told the Lakers to stay away from Artest. The team decided he’d grown up a bit and could make them better. The team was right. As the playoffs go on, Artest is going to be increasingly important.
I’m supposed to say here that it’s hardly over for the Thunder, that anything can happen, that upsets are a part of sports and that if you catch a leprechaun, he (Why aren’t there any girl leprechauns?) has to give you his gold.
So Thunder fans can and will console themselves by saying that their team can’t play much worse and can play much better. Then they can go back to being depressed by realizing that so can the Lakers.
The truth here is that the Lakers are too big up front and too talented and experienced for Oklahoma. Their great player is better and older and more experienced than the Thunder’s great player. They play defense too well to lose.
The Lakers know all of this, and that could be another reason why they didn’t play any better than they had to in Game 1. Why win by 20 if you don’t have to? The object is to win, not to look pretty.
The proof of that is in the early 17-point lead L.A. built. Once that lead was on the board, the Lakers went into maintenance mode, relying on their defense and getting the baskets they needed to get. They let the Thunder cut it to eight points at the half, but that was the best Oklahoma could do. The entire second half, the game stayed in that 8-10 point range.
The rest of the series will probably be much the same: almost close enough to make you think the Thunder has a chance, but not quite.
It’s not pretty and it’s not going to convince anyone that the Lakers are good enough to get back to the Finals, let alone defend their title. In this series, that’s not important. Soon enough, it will be.