Kobe Bryant picked his spots Sunday, rather masterfully as a matter of fact, and prompted Thunder coach Scott Brooks to bluntly proclaim after the game that he “picked us apart.”
By halftime of the Lakers’ nine-point win over Oklahoma City, Bryant had more assists (six) than shot attempts (five). Through three quarters, Bryant had scored 15 points with 10 assists and nine rebounds. At that point, he was five of eight from the field. He needed only four shots in the fourth quarter — one less than Russell Westbrook and three fewer than Kevin Durant — to flat out dominate down the stretch.
When it was over, Bryant had amassed a team-high 21 points, a game-high 14 assists, nine rebounds and comparisons to Magic Johnson.
“He is playing like Magic Johnson,” said Steve Nash. “He’s taking the ball down, controlling the offense, creating opportunities for his teammates. I think everyone feels a part of it. I think that’s what we need. When you look at the scorers, everyone is in double figures.”
It’s convenient for the purple and gold to compare their current star to their former great. But a more fitting association would have been a foe Thunder fans know all too well.
What Bryant did to the Thunder on Sunday, in an afternoon showcase nationally televised on ABC, evoked memories of the magnificence James displayed last June.
Bryant pushed his scoring to the backseat, taking only 12 shots but making eight, and torched the Thunder by setting the table for teammates. Perhaps no longer able to physically overpower the Thunder with his athleticism, Bryant showed for the first time against OKC on Sunday that he doesn’t have to. He dished at least one assist to six different teammates and, as a result, made his entire team a threat to score. A stunning six Lakers players scored in double figures. Dwight Howard, who missed eight of 10 foul shots, was two points shy of being the seventh.
Led by Bryant, that beautiful balance by the Lakers — especially when contrasted against the Thunder’s ineffective two-man show — brought up some bad, bad flashbacks.
In that Finals series, James and the Heat carved up OKC with the exact same philosophy the Lakers used Sunday. Only once in five games did the Heat have fewer than four players in double figure scoring. That was Game 3. In Game 1, they had five. In Game 2, they had four, with all four scoring at least 16. In Game 4, they had four, with three scoring at least 20. In Game 5, they had six, with four scoring at least 20.
This has quickly become the recipe to beat the Thunder: ball movement, unselfishness, balance.
But the most disturbing part about Sunday’s loss is that more than halfway through this season, and on the heels of that brutal beating back in June, the Thunder still looks oblivious of ways to stop it. Additionally, OKC can’t seem to consistently attack it by matching it.
Against the Lakers, only four Thunder players scored in double digits. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins each scored 10 to somewhat complement Durant (35) and Westbrook (17). But the Thunder’s superstar tandem struggled, shooting a combined 16-for-48 from the field. Rather than move the ball for a better shot, they just kept shooting. Kevin Martin had one less shot than Lakers forward Earl Clark for crying out loud.
And while you could reason that it simply was an off performance by the Thunder, which in many ways it was, this seems to be the developing trend in big games. Go back to that Finals series, for example. Only once did the Thunder have more than three players score in double figures. That was in Game 5, when James Harden and Derek Fisher both needed garbage time to net at least 10 points. In Game 4, Durant and Westbrook were the only two in double digits, and for as magnificent of a performance as it was it still was a loss.
So, yes, Bryant brought back some bad, bad memories Sunday. After several recent failures, he’s seemed to learn how to succeed against this team. Sunday was only the second time Bryant and the Lakers have beaten the Thunder in the past seven games. Bryant had more than four assists only twice in the previous six games. Perhaps non-coincidentally, the lone win came when he registered eight.
It’s possible we witnessed James come to that same realization in the Finals. As that series went on, the games got easier and easier for James, because he relied on his teammates more and more. He took 24 shots and had only four assists in Game 1 and loss. In nearly each subsequent game, all wins, James’ shot attempts dipped while his assist total rose. Game 3 was the lone exception.
That’s what makes this season scariest for the Thunder.
The word is out.
Ball movement, unselfishness and balance can beat Oklahoma City.
And the Thunder now has to fear possibly succumbing to San Antonio or Memphis or the Clippers should they successfully subscribe to that recipe before even thinking about a rematch with Miami.