The final seconds of the final post-game interview Monday night was all kinds of awkward.
Just before Kobe Bryant concluded the evening's events, a local reporter asked the Los Angeles Lakers star guard a blunt but burning question that cuts to the heart of what this series with the Oklahoma City Thunder is now about.
“Can you guard ‘em?” a reporter asked.
Bryant looked up from his seat atop the podium.
“Excuse me,” Bryant replied.
“Can you guys guard them, as a team?” the reporter restated.
Bryant pursed his lips, shook his head and rolled his eyes
“No,” Bryant said, defiantly and sarcastically.
The five-time champion and 14-time All-Star then stared down Myron Patton for five seconds before being excused from the press conference.
The atmosphere in the room couldn't have been more tense.
The exchange couldn't have been more telling.
This Western Conference semifinals series now boils down to whether the Lakers can defend the Thunder. And regardless of what Bryant believes, there is a mound of evidence that points to the Thunder simply being a bad matchup for the Lakers.
After one defeat, one brutally-bad blowout defeat, L.A. looks utterly lost against the Thunder. The Lakers look too slow, too old and too thin to keep up. Already, it's clear that the Lakers don't have enough counter options to continue to compete with OKC.
So what's L.A. to do? How on earth can the Lakers defend the Thunder from here out to make this a compelling series and avoid the same sweep the defending champion Dallas Mavericks faced in the first round?
The options are limited. But there are a few Lakers coach Mike Brown has at his disposal.
1. “Show” harder on the pick-and-roll.
It's no secret that the Thunder's offense is pick-and-roll heavy. Game 1 was no different, as 33.3 percent of the Thunder's plays came out of pick-and-rolls. This is by far the Lakers' biggest concern. The problem is, with big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, the Lakers are not built to defend the pick-and-roll. Every team knows this about the Lakers, and every team tries to exploit it.
The Thunder did just that in Game 1. All the Lakers can do to correct it is cover the pick-and-roll harder. L.A. has to be more engaged at the point of attack. That means Bryant must guard Russell Westbrook earlier and closer, shutting off his path to the basket. Whoever is guarding the screener — usually a Bynum or Gasol — step up and “show” harder, keeping Westbrook, James Harden or Kevin Durant from dribbling right off the screen and toward the basket.
In Game 1, the Laker bigs were camping out in the lane and giving up too much space, allowing the Thunder to get to the middle of the floor and pull up for open jumpers. It's a pick-your-poison equation for the Lakers, because if the bigs press up then OKC's guards can turn on the jets and get to the basket, which they still did at times Monday night.
As long as the mid-range jumpers are falling for OKC, there is little the Lakers can do to counter the Thunder's pick-and-roll game.
2. Take care of the ball.
The Thunder turns turnovers into points as well as any team. The Thunder scored 22 points off 15 Lakers turnovers. OKC also got 13 fast-break points, including eight in the decisive third quarter. There's no way the Lakers, or any other team, can guard the Thunder if OKC is consistently getting out in transition. The key to successfully defending the Thunder starts with limiting transition opportunities. The Lakers did not do that in Game 1, and it was because of their turnovers.
3. Defend without fouling.
The Lakers put the Thunder on the free-throw line 29 times in Game 1. That's three more times than what Oklahoma City averaged during the regular season, and four more times than what it's averaged in the playoffs. Teams can't defend the charity stripe. OKC made 24 of 29 free throws Monday, with Durant, Westbrook and Harden each getting to the line at least six times. The Thunder's success at the foul line in Game 1 mirrored the team's regular season success, when it shot a league-leading 80.6 percent. If the Lakers continue to foul, they're basically bailing out the Thunder.
4. Hide Steve Blake.
The longer he's on Harden, the shorter this series will be. For some strange reason, Brown figured it'd be a good idea late in first quarter to stick Blake on Harden. And Harden immediately began abusing the smaller point guard with the pick-and-roll. With Bryant covering the Thunder's point guards, the Lakers might have to try the bigger, stronger Devin Ebanks or Matt Barnes against Harden. Brown did this in the third quarter, going with Barnes, but by then it was much too late. Harden is the biggest X-factor in this series for the Thunder, and putting Blake on him is like dangling a piece of meat in front of a lion.
5. Go big.
The Lakers are already big. But with Ramon Sessions turning into a liability on both ends, the Lakers might have to sit their prized point guard acquisition and play Bryant as the lead guard. The downside is it adds even more pressure an already cumbersome load for Bryant to bear. But if the Lakers have Bryant as the lead guard, they can trot out a bigger, stronger defender such as Ebanks or Barnes to be another defender when the Thunder has Harden, Westbrook and Durant on the court.
It's not the best option. But the Lakers don't have many other directions to turn. And after just one game, time is running out.
Thunder vs. Lakers
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena
TV: TNT (Cox 31, HD Ch. 730)
Radio: WWLS-FM 98., WWLS-AM 640
Three things to know
* The Thunder led by as many 35 points in Game 1 Monday before walking away with a 29-point victory. It was the largest lead of the season for the Thunder and the fourth-largest margin of victory in a playoff game in franchise history.
* Russell Westbrook scored a game-high 27 points with seven rebounds, nine assists, two steals and just one turnover in Game 1 despite playing just three quarters.
* The Thunder outscored the Lakers 20-0 in fast break points in Game 1. Oklahoma City scored 13 transition points in the decisive third quarter.