The Los Angeles Lakers trudged off the Staples Center floor late Saturday, a single loss now separating them from season's end, another fourth-quarter collapse once again causing their undoing. They didn't show much poise in the locker room, either, with Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum pointing blame at others for allowing the Oklahoma City Thunder to steal their second victory in three games.
Bryant missed eight of his 10 shots in the final quarter, but shrugged off his struggles by saying his teammates' lack of aggressiveness "forced" him to take tough shots. He also left no question which teammate deserved the most blame for the 103-100 loss in Game 4.
Bryant faulted Gasol for not playing aggressive enough. It was also Gasol's turnover that led to Kevin Durant making the winning 3-pointer with 13.7 seconds left.
"Pau's got to be more assertive," Bryant said. "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 be next game."
Pau Gasol had 10 points and five rebounds in the Lakers' loss. (AP)Bryant has periodically targeted Gasol with his public criticism, hoping to motivate him to lift his performance. But with the Lakers now down 3-1 in the series and facing Game 5 on Monday in Oklahoma City, Bryant's patience has been exhausted. Gasol's inconsistency has been a problem for the Lakers throughout the season, and he never seemed to recover after the team tried to trade him in December to the Houston Rockets in a deal with the New Orleans Hornets for Chris Paul. NBA commissioner David Stern blocked the trade, and Gasol has admitted his tenuous status with the franchise has bothered him.
Gasol totaled just 10 points and five rebounds in Game 4. Most recently, Bryant criticized both Gasol and Andrew Bynum after a listless performance in a Game 6 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the first round. Gasol responded with 23 points and 17 rebounds in the Lakers' clinching Game 7 victory.
After a dominant first half by Andrew Bynum on Saturday, the Thunder began fronting the Lakers' center with Kendrick Perkins. Bryant thought Gasol didn't attack enough when Serge Ibaka left him to help Perkins.
"He's looking to swing the ball too much," Bryant said. "He's got to take his shot."
That was the case on the game's most critical possession. After a steal by Steve Blake, Gasol tried to pass to Metta World Peace only to have Durant knock the ball away with 33.9 seconds left. Durant followed with the 3-pointer.
"Just a bad read on Pau's part," Bryant said.
"It's one play, one mistake," Gasol said. "There were a lot of mistakes in that fourth quarter, a lot of mistakes throughout the game. So, obviously, if I could have gone back, maybe I could have shot it and I would have. It's one play, obviously, at a critical time, but I don't feel like we lost the game because of one turnover."
Indeed, Bynum faulted the Lakers from going away from what was working. He had 14 points and seven rebounds as L.A. built a 10-point lead at halftime. With the Thunder increasingly fronting him, Bynum took just four shots in the second half, two in the fourth quarter when the Thunder erased a 13-point deficit over the final eight minutes.
"I didn't touch the ball, so the game started speeding up, speeding up, speeding up, speeding up," Bynum said. "They beat us in transition at the end.
The Lakers, Bynum said, never successfully countered the Thunder's defense.
"You have to be smart," Bynum said. "When a team fronts you, that means you're hurting them. So they make an adjustment and you can't keep running the same offense. You have to make them pay for that, whether you use a ball fake and come back to the same side or readjust. Reading that situation is a problem for us."
Had the Lakers showed more poise in end-of-game situations, they – not the Thunder – would be one victory away from reaching the Western Conference finals. Bryant was primarily responsible for the Lakers coughing up a nine-point lead in the final 2:08 of Game 2.
Team Harmony these Lakers are not. They've allowed their season to dangerously slip away, and now head to OKC looking for answers.
"Every single one of us played a part [in the losses]," World Peace said. "Every single one of us needs to go to OKC and get back on track."