NBA: Thunder exploiting fast break against Lakers
By JEFF LATZKE
AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder are using the Lakers' age and size against them.
Every chance the youthful Thunder get, they're pushing the pace and getting out in transition to the tune of a 47-9 advantage in fast-break points during back-to-back wins that evened the first-round playoff series at 2-2.
"There's no doubt we have to do it against them. We can't play their rhythm," coach Scott Brooks said Monday. "Their rhythm is really good when it's at their pace, and their spacing of their offense kind of lulls you to sleep a little bit. We can't allow that to happen."
Brooks listed seven players in his nine-man rotation that could use their speed as an advantage against the supersized Lakers, who start a pair of 7-footers in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum and are generally less mobile than Oklahoma City — the youngest team in the NBA.
"We have some quickness on our perimeter. Our bigs can get down there and create some opportunities at the rim," Brooks said. "It just helps us when we get out and run but we have to do it off of a missed shot. Last game, we even did it off a couple of makes. It's good to do that, but we're really good when we defend, rebound and run out."
The transition game has been a key for Oklahoma City all season long as the franchise improved its win total by 27 over last season. The Thunder went 24-4 when they scored at least 18 points on the fast break in the regular season, and they broke that mark in both of their playoff wins so far.
Game 5 is Tuesday night in Los Angeles.
The Lakers are built for power and execution in the half court, with their size and four starters age 29 or older. Bynum is the lone exception, and he's nursing a sore Achilles tendon that forced him to miss the last 13 games of the regular season.
He's one of seven players on the L.A. roster who are playing through injuries while Oklahoma City was only the fourth team in the past 40 years to have four starters play all 82 games of the regular season.
"People are trying to break on us. They have been for the better part of the season because of our size," Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson said. "That's where our defense has to strengthen itself and be conscious of obviously turnovers and transition off long shots. Oklahoma's exploiting that aspect of our game."
For the Thunder, the break revolves around second-year point guard Russell Westbrook. Beyond having the speed to get out in the open floor, Westbrook ranks third among NBA point guards in rebounding and can quickly turn an opponent's missed shot into offense on the other end of the floor.
Derek Fisher, the Lakers' 35-year-old point guard, said he's been caught off guard by Westbrook crashing all the way to the rim instead of stopping at the elbow in his pursuit of rebound.
"That's a big key for us," said Westbrook, who teams with Thabo Sefolosha to form one of the league's top rebounding backcourt tandems. "The coaches emphasize that: go in there and rebound the basketball and start the break. Once a guard rebounds the ball, it's easy to start the break."
Oklahoma City steadily improved its fast-break production over the course of the season, averaging only 11.6 points through the first three weeks of the season. By the All-Star Game, the average was up to 14.7 and the Thunder scored 17.1 points per game in transition after the break.
During their best stretch of the season — a nine-game winning streak — the Thunder averaged 17.9 points on the break.
"We have to score in transition. There's no doubt that's one of our strengths all year," Brooks said. "I feel like when we score off of our defense, we're playing good basketball because we're really defending. We're getting out in passing lanes, we're getting deflections, getting shots blocked and then we're just running out in transition and getting scoring opportunities."
In Game 4, Oklahoma City made six of its nine shots on the fast break — including 3-pointers by James Harden and Kevin Durant — while outscoring the Lakers 24-2 in transition.
"I'm amazed at how they can score 23 or 24 transition points on six or eight times that they're scoring. They're almost scoring three or four points somehow each time they fast break, and there's no such thing as four points for a dunk," Fisher said.
"I don't know how they're doing it, but they're doing it. And it is something that we have to stop."