EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – If you ask Phil Jackson – and we did – nothing has changed for the Lakers as they face a must-win Game 5 Tuesday night against a team that has run them ragged and put the defending champs in a precarious 2-2 tie in their first-round series.
“Same old basketball team,” Jackson said on the Lakers’ practice court Tuesday. “Same old group of guys.”
Well, not really. The last guy on the court shooting jumpers, Ron Artest, had notably shaved his head. No more Dennis Rodman lookalike routine.
“Just a new look,” said the Lakers’ defensive specialist, who along with his teammates needed a change of scenery – among other things – after going oh-for-Oklahoma City.
The Lakers are facing the same situation – tied 2-2, with Game 5 at home – that was in front of them when they eventually beat the Rockets and Nuggets on their way to the Finals a year ago. But with Kobe Bryant’s sore knee, arthritic finger, and assorted other ailments – not to mention the Thunder’s speed and fast-breaking dominance in the past two games – there’s a sense that the Lakers are in more trouble now than they were in either of those aforementioned series.
“I think you just have to go with what’s here,” Jackson said, downplaying the notion that anything useful can be drawn from those experiences. “The guys that have been here know that they can do it and they know what it’s like and what it takes. … It’s a veteran team that knows how to play in the playoffs.”
Not in the past two games, it hasn’t.
Defensively, the Lakers haven’t been able to slow down Russell Westbrook, who has consistently gotten the Lakers out of sorts with dribble-penetration. Offensively, the Lakers are settling for too many jump shots, failing to take advantage of the prominent size advantage owned by Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. Bad, long shots lead to long rebounds, which have only accelerated the Thunder’s fast-breaking tendencies. Oklahoma City owned a 47-9 advantage in fastbreak points in Games 3 and 4.
Jackson has been preaching better shot selection, more persistent inside play, and better floor balance as the elixirs for slowing Westbrook’s thundering herd. After shootaround Tuesday, he revealed two more factors that he believes will be crucial in keeping this series from slipping away.
It went like this: I asked Jackson, “You wouldn’t consider any lineup or rotation changes at this point, would you?” And he replied, “Yes, I would.”
“Try and get Lamar involved,” Jackson said. “He’s got to get involved in the game. If he plays well, we usually play well.”
Jackson said he’s not contemplating any changes to the starting lineup for Game 5. But he would like to see some changes from Artest besides a haircut.
Though Artest has done a good job holding Kevin Durant to 38 percent shooting in the series, his own poor shot selection and inability to take advantage of his post-up advantage against Durant on the other end of the floor has been one of many trouble spots for L.A. Though Durant would be no match for Artest in the post, Artest has hoisted 23 attempts from 3-point range in the series, making only three.
“He does have real post-up skills,” Jackson said. “He’s got to get inside instead of standing on the outside. The post is a real free-for-all situation on our team. He’s gone in there a couple of times and has chosen not to stay in there. The last game we posted him up a couple of times in the second half to start with just to get him back in there.”
And Kobe? Jackson wouldn’t say whether he expected a more aggressive approach from Bryant in Game 5. That sort of goes without saying after Bryant managed only 12 points on 10 shots in Game 4. But only to a point, if the Lakers know what is good for them.
There are those who think everything the Lakers do has to be about Bryant all the time. Not in this case; it’s too early in the postseason for Bryant to carry the load by himself.
There’s no question Bryant will be more aggressive, and will be more of a factor than he was in Game 4. But if the rest of the Lakers stand around and wait for him to take them to Oklahoma City up 3-2, they will be in very real danger of losing this game – and thus, the series. Instead of Kobe shooting all night, what the Lakers need is more assertiveness from Odom, more dominance from Gasol and Bynum, and smarter play from Artest – and yes, that includes backing the rail-thin Durant into the paint and beating him up. Artest needs to recognize that such a strategy would make his job of defending him on the other end infinitely easier.
If the Lakers don’t do these things Tuesday night, they could be spending a long, miserable summer beating themselves up.
For what it’s worth, I asked Artest what needed to change for the Lakers to regain control of this series. Take his response with a grain of salt, because one of the beauties of Artest is that he talks first and thinks later. But the words that followed my question shouldn’t exactly inspire confidence for Lakers fans.
“Play the same way,” he said.
Which is exactly what the Lakers can’t afford to do.