When asked to explain his team’s ups and downs, particularly the 60-point swing seen from Games 4 to 5, Kobe Bryant summoned the one word that has been said ad nauseum since the start of this first-round NBA playoff series between his Lakers and the Thunder. Adjustments. "I think those two games in Oklahoma, they executed extremely well,” Bryant said. "They had a plan in place, they had a strategy and they executed it to perfection. And we made our adjustments. Now it’s on them to see what they do.” Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City’s Coach of the Year, is on the clock. Following Tuesday night’s 111-87 blowout in Game 5 at Staples Center, the Thunder is now on life support in these playoffs. The Lakers own a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 6 is Friday night inside the Ford Center. And now, it’s really "win or go home” time. That’s where Brooks comes in. The Thunder’s coach must return the volley that Lakers coach Phil Jackson swatted across court two nights ago, effectively changing the face of this series. Jackson neutralized the Thunder’s biggest playmaking threat Tuesday when he sicced perennial pest Bryant on Russell Westbrook. It was a move that disrupted the Thunder’s entire offense and resulted in yet another poor start for Oklahoma City. Whatever adjustments Brooks makes Friday seemingly must begin there. Through five games, the Lakers have outscored the Thunder in the first quarter, 128-98. And with Bryant, rather than Derek Fisher, expected to remain on Westbrook, Brooks must devise a plan to get the offense flowing again. Brooks will tell you that the Thunder’s defense is its best offense. By that he means the more Oklahoma City prevents the Lakers from scoring, the more it will be able to run out in transition and revive the stalled fast-break game that was seen in Game 5. And to restore the team’s defense — which allowed the Lakers to shoot 64 percent in the first half Tuesday and a series-high 54 percent for the game — Brooks finds himself having to preach a point he didn’t think would be an issue in this series. Effort. "They hit us really hard in the beginning of the game, but we didn’t fight back,” said Nenad Krstic. "Even in Games 1 and 2, they really tried to come out and get an early lead but we found a way to come back. (Tuesday), we just gave up.” The Thunder’s offensive woes, while they run rampant, will always come second to the defensive focus. Oklahoma City has shown throughout this season that it has plenty of offensive firepower when things are clicking on the defensive end. But, as Thabo Sefolosha said, the Thunder allowed its poor offensive start on Tuesday to impact its defensive effort after missing its first 13 shots. The Lakers wasted little time in taking advantage of the slippage, jumping to a 31-16 lead after the opening period. To remedy the defensive slippage, the Thunder must first start by applying tighter ball pressure. The Lakers put the ball in Bryant’s hands and let him orchestrate his team’s offense with ease Tuesday night. Bryant attacked the paint and sucked in the defense before finding open teammates all night. He finished with seven of the Lakers’ 27 assists. In addition to stronger ball pressure, the Thunder needs to shore up its weak side help when it fronts post players Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Thanks to a subtle adjustment on the Lakers’ part, L.A. was able to clear out the backside because of better spacing and pass the ball high over the top for easy baskets. Additional playing time for stronger and savvier defensive big men Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison might be a modification Brooks considers. Brooks said at the start of the series that starting Ibaka is not a move he would go to because the team has had success as currently constructed and players’ comfort levels are a big factor at this point in the season. What could be a reasonable scenario, though, is supplanting Sefolosha with Ibaka, moving Durant to shooting guard, Jeff Green to small forward and employing a bigger lineup for longer stints. The variation would force Fisher to defend the bigger, stronger, more offensive-oriented Green or cause Jackson to counter with Lamar Odom. With Bryant deferring, and Sefolosha not scoring, Green could defend Bryant and possibly find his offensive rhythm. As for the offense, the primary goal always will be to score in transition. But in the halfcourt sets, Westbrook has to utilize more patience, Durant more aggression and Green some consistency with his perimeter shooting. The Thunder also needs a fourth scorer to show up, James Harden being the logical candidate. Harden is averaging 16.5 points, five rebounds and 3.5 assists in two games at home and just 3.6 points, one rebound and 0.6 assists at Staples Center. How Brooks counters Friday will go a long way in determining whether the Thunder wins or goes home.
THUNDER VS. LAKERS: game 6→When: 8:30 p.m. Friday →Where: Ford Center →TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD 722); ESPN (Cox 29, HD 720) →Radio: WWLS 98.1 FM, 640 AM
On Pages 3-4C→Jenni Carlson: The rise of Thunder Nation →John Rohde: Waiting for the series to start →Moves and countermoves: Adjustments made through the series →Series stats: Cumulative statistics through five games