Comparing Warriors-Thunder to Lakers-Kings

I watched last nights’ Warriors game at a nice, but not absurdly so, sports bar with two friends, one of whom is actually from Oklahoma City. She’s not a sports fan but got into the Thunder when they upset the Spurs in the 2012 conference finals, and has initial memories of Scott Brooks giving too many minutes to Kendrick Perkins.
The sports bar had more Warriors fans than Thunder fans, and almost half the TV screens were a Tommy Lasorda instructional video for pre-adolescent baseball players. It was a cloudy early evening in downtown Los Angeles. The bar had several framed pictures of the old Los Angeles County library.

At first the game seemed like a Thunder coronation as they were up 41-28 with three minutes to go. The whole game changed for the seemingly simple reason that Klay Thompson and eventually Steph Curry started making a historic number of threes, and Andre Iguadola played great.

So much of sports is mental, I think. The vast improvements in NBA analysis of the past few years can better explain what is happening but the question of why it’s happening partly returns to the trite reason of mental fortitude.

It’s hard to tell when players are nervous, but clearly most players play better when their team is ahead or has the momentum. Curry and Draymond Green seemed to be spending most of this series trying to recapture the confidence they had in the regular season, and, largely because Thompson kept hitting so many incredible shots, they eventually did. And at that point the pendulum swung and the Thunder lost their confidence.

The energy of the series reminds me of probably the great playoff series ever, though one marred in controversy: the 2002 Kings-Lakers series, which the Kings should have won anyway because of the game 6 officiating travesty. Nonetheless, the parallel is that like the Warriors the Lakers were the champs and heavily favored to repeat. And like the Thunder, the Kings were not just winning games against the Lakers but clearly proving to be the far superior team.

Like game 3 of the Warriors-Thunder, in game 3 of the Kings-Lakers the Kings imposed their will and controlled the game. They were too inventive and sophisticated for the Lakers with their ball movement and deep rotation, getting flourishes of great play from the likes of Bobby Jackson and Scot Pollard. The Lakers, meanwhile, had shown all their cards: dump it in to Shaq, have Kobe somewhat inefficiently and over-aggressively drive the ball and jack mid-range jumpers, and have Derek Fisher and his ilk launch threes while Phil Jackson sits on the sideline with his arms crossed and a half-smirk. At the end of game 3, the Kings had I believe a 20-point-lead and Chris Webber had this breakaway dunk that recalled his pre-timeout swagger at Michigan.

The Lakers seemed positively cooked after the start of game 4. Mike Bibby was hitting shot after shot and destroying Fisher and the Lakers other inferior point guards. They were up by like 20 at the end of the first quarter. Slowly, though, the Lakers just started making shots. And they made enough shots to rattle the Kings into remembering — oh they’re the champs, and they’re expected to win. The Lakers, of course, won game 4 because they had a ton of luck and Robert Horry’s heartbreaking buzzer three-pointer. But they won Games 4 and 7 in large part because the Kings seemed to stop believing they were the best team. They just weren’t mentally strong enough to overcome the breaks that went the Lakers way.

I think the Thunder are a mentally stronger group than the Kings, who had to rely on Bibby — a very good player but not a star — to shoot the biggest shots because Webber and (an admittedly injured) Peja Stojakovic were too scared. I would actually predict the Thunder win game 7, because the Warriors did not do that much differently in game 6 except they made all these threes. But the outcome seems largely dependent on whether they believe they can win the game.