Two of the Lakers’ three losses in their Western Conference Semifinals series against the Thunder have come down to key turnovers at inopportune times.
The latest was an interesting cross-court pass from Pau Gasol that Kevin Durant intercepted, setting up his go-ahead 3-pointer that proved to be the difference in teh fourth quarter. Gasol, a typically skilled passer, made that dangerous pass at the worst possible moment for the Lakers. The margin for error in a tie game and down 2-1 was extremely small for the homestanding Lakers. They really had their chance to tie the series and push the heavily favored Thunder a little more.
This series though has continued to show what both Los Angeles and Oklahoma City are made of mentally. It is when things go wrong that this part of a team’s character is truly revealed.
Trailing by seven with two minutes left in Game Two, Oklahoma City rallied and took the lead. Late turnovers doomed Los Angeles. Oklahoma City is showing that it is a mentally strong team that can take on playoff trials.
The Lakers, the team supposedly with the experience to withstand any Playoff storm, is left pointing fingers and trying to figure out how to climb out of a 3-1 hole. If you want to look at the tone of Los Angeles’ comments after the Game Four loss, you might suggest that the Lakers are starting to break at the seams.
Kobe Bryant took his postgame availability to challenge teammate Pau Gasol to be more aggressive late in games. After all, if Bryant passes you the ball late in a game and defers to you, you better be ready to deliver. So far, Gasol has not taken on the same goat status that, say, Steve Blake did. But if there is not a more aggressive Gasol in Game Five, the Lakers will be going home in the second round for the second straight year.
“Pau’s got to be more assertive,” Bryant said after the Game Four loss. “He’s the guy they’re leaving [open]. When he’s catching the ball, he’s looking to pass. He’s got to be aggressive. He’s got to shoot the ball or drive the ball to the basket. He will be next game.
“He’s looking to swing the ball too much. He’s got to take his shot.”
Gasol is a veteran player, and he is not going to focus on one mistake (as costly as it might have been at the end of the game). He may take the constructive criticism from his teammate and build that into his gameplan to attack in Game Five. Then again, Gasol and Bryant have won two titles together and this just might be the natural ending of their relationship when it comes to winning championships.
Gasol is averaging only 11.5 points per game and grabbing 8.5 rebounds per game in the series against the Thunder. Gasol is taking only 10.0 field goals per game.
No one is going to confuse Gasol for the center of the offense at this point. That is Bryant. You might even say Andrew Bynum with his emergence this postseason is becoming the team’s second option. And remember also that the Lakers won only their second title with a healthy Bynum.
Gasol has kind of been stuck in the middle. He has not the dominating superstar, and more than anyone has had to adjust to a new role in a new offense this year. Gasol had his lowest scoring average of his career this year at 17.4 points per game.
Could the Lakers use a more aggressive Gasol? Probably.
Gasol took 257 field goal attempts from 16-23 feet this year. He took 170 such field goals all of last year (that is 16 more games).
But Gasol’s value on the floor is as a facilitator, running the high-low sets with Bynum and setting up others. His scoring comes when Bynum is off the floor and when the offense runs through him in the post.
What Bryant seemed to be asking Gasol to do is play outside of his role. Maybe that is a problem with Bryant (who conveniently forgotten his gaffe in Game Two) in understanding roles on the team. Maybe it is Gasol trying to fit too much into his own role and being assertive.
The Lakers have struggled throughout the season with the new offense and finding the right rhythm. This series against the Thunder has been a big struggle as the weaknesses of the offense has shown itself in Bryant, Gasol and Bynum’s struggles.
Either way, the Lakers better figure things out quick, or this season will be over.