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Scott Howard-Cooper

The Lakers feel they need gritty play from their bigs like Pau Gasol to come out on top of the Thunder.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Lakers realizing series win will only come with physicality

Posted May 19 2012 10:34AM

LOS ANGELES -- The points that put the Lakers ahead for good Friday night came off a missed Kobe Bryant jumper. And a shorter missed Bryant shot from the same right side. And a Bryant pump fake that got the defender, Russell Westbrook, in the air and resulted in two made free throws.

That was good for 95-94 with 33.8 seconds remaining at a Staples Center ready to open up and swallow city blocks if the Lakers went down 3-0 to the Thunder. One offensive rebound by Pau Gasol, one unlikely offensive rebound by point guard Steve Blake, one trip to the line for Bryant. One possession that could change a second-round series.

This is what the Lakers have had to become to stay within binocular range of Oklahoma City. Forget the faded image. As they proved Wednesday on the road, while being unable to finish the job in what became heartbreaking defeat, and again Friday, the only hope is to go game-in-a-grinder.

Not much Lakers glamour there. But plenty of opportunity.

"That's two games in a row that we controlled the tempo," Bryant accurately noted.

And two games in a row when they had a chance to win after getting run out of Chesapeake Energy Arena in the opener.

That they want to downshift is no surprise -- the Lakers finished 15th in the league in scoring during the regular season despite shooting the ball well. The last thing they wanted, as everyone knew, was a 400-meter relay with the young legs of Oklahoma City. It was the same way in the first round with the speedy Nuggets.

This isn't being successful by slowing the pace, though. It became obvious Friday, two nights after a similar strain of fingernails down the chalkboard, that winning ugly is the best Lakers hope. That is a surprise.

"That's huge for us," Blake said. "They are young and athletic. We've got to play a physical game and we've got to slow it down, and not turn the ball over and let them get out and run. I think we did a decent job of that tonight."

They have to win ugly.

The Lakers do. The franchise whose very foundation of the Jerry Buss Era has been built on sparkle, down to the cheerleaders who became famous and the forefathers of the group who were known as "Showtime", followed later by the Lake Show.

Embrace the Lake Slow.

Embrace ugly.

"Well, we'd like to make it look pretty," Blake said. "But, yeah, in a way, it's got to be a lot of banging and play inside the paint."

They nearly won Game 2 by turning Wednesday into mud wrestling, when shooting 38.5 percent from the field, 13.3 percent on 3s and committing 15 turnovers nearly became a victory that stole home-court advantage, if not for the final few giveaway possessions. On Friday, it was 38.6 percent overall, one field goal the final four minutes, and another 15 turnovers, and yet a 99-96 win for a 2-1 Western Conference semifinals.

The Lakers got their go-ahead points on a possession with two missed shots. When the Thunder tried to respond on the ensuing possession, Kevin Durant grabbed the offensive rebound from a Serge Ibaka miss, only to be stripped by Gasol before Durant could squeeze off a shot. Metta World Peace controlled the loose ball, was immediately fouled and helped put the game away with two free throws with 12.9 seconds left.

"That's what we talked about," Lakers coach Mike Brown said of needing to grind out wins against a lethal opponent. "... We know that this series is going to be a physical series. The team that's most physical is going to win. I give my guys credit because they stepped up to the plate and they brought their hard hats. We found ways to give ourselves a chance to win down the stretch."

Thunder coach Scott Brooks pointed out that his team can play in the trenches too. He's right. While Oklahoma City has always been branded as the exciting athletes who want the push, players and coaches know internally that the rise to title contender has been built on grit, intense practices and defenses.

The Thunder can win a shootout, though. That's the difference. The Lakers cannot. They need the possessions with two offensive rebounds -- maybe one from the backup point guard -- and the points to stay ahead for good that come without a basket. They need the ugly.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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