With the Los Angeles Lakers’ NBA playoff season seemingly crumbling around them, their team unity is showing signs of cracking as they prepare for Monday’s crucial Game Five in Oklahoma City.
The Lakers blew a 13-point lead over the Thunder at home on Saturday, a heart-breaking 103-100 loss putting them on the brink of elimination at 1-3 down in the best-of-seven Western Conference semi-final series.
Kobe Bryant, so often their supreme closer in the playoffs, shot only two-of-10 in the final quarter as he was repeatedly double-teamed and he pointed a finger of blame at Spanish power forward Pau Gasol for not showing the necessary aggression.
Gasol shot just four-of-10 from the field and was guilty of a careless pass and late turnover which led to Thunder forward Kevin Durant’s dagger blow of a three-pointer with just 13.7 seconds remaining.
“Pau has got to be more assertive,” Bryant said of the seven-foot [2.13 metres]tall Spaniard who finished with only 10 points and five rebounds while committing three turnovers.
“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 next game.”
Asked for his reaction to Gasol’s turnover in the dying moments of Game Four at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, Bryant replied: “It was just a bad read on Pau’s part. It happens.”
Four-time All-Star Gasol, frequently accused in the past of being too soft in bruising NBA encounters, rejected suggestions that his late turnover had been the defining moment of the Lakers defeat.
“It’s one play, one mistake,” he said. “There were a lot of mistakes in that fourth quarter, a lot of mistakes throughout the game.
“Obviously if I could have gone back, maybe I could have shot it and I would have. But I don’t feel like we lost the game because of one turnover.”
Gasol felt the Lakers’ problems in the second half, when they had led by 13 points with just over eight minutes left, stemmed from poor ball movement.
“It wasn’t good on our part so the defence wasn’t moving and that made it harder on ourselves out there on the offensive end,” he said.
“Offensively it just wasn’t flowing as well as it was earlier in the game.”
Gasol’s fellow big man, Andrew Bynum, contributed 18 points and nine rebounds but he was held to only four points in the second half as the Lakers failed to impose themselves on the faster-paced, resurgent Thunder.
“They started running in transitions, I didn’t touch the ball, and the game started speeding up, speeding up, speeding up,” he said.
“They beat us in transition at the end. They just ran us to death. At the end of the game, we got out of character and they just got that closer on the fast break.”
Team unity or not, the third-seeded Lakers know they face an uphill task in Oklahoma City on Monday when they attempt to keep alive their playoff hopes with a road win.
“We’re all upset and extremely frustrated, but I don’t think anybody is worried about going into Oklahoma City and getting a win,” said Bryant, a five-time NBA champion.
“We don’t think about winning three in a row. We just think about taking care of business on Monday. Just win that game and go from there.”