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How Do You Spell Success? T-E-A-M

   by Al McMordie - 04/25/2010

You need talent, of course, to advance in the NBA playoffs. You need defense, too. Another key that is sometimes overlooked is a four letter word for postseason success: T-E-A-M. I thought of that this weekend as the young Oklahoma City squad battered the Lakers to tie their series 2-2.

Oklahoma City is now 3-0 ATS the last three games, winning two, and they've done it with teamwork and hustle. It's impressive how a group with so many young players is playing with passion, even on the road.

Oklahoma City dominated L.A. in every respect, leading by as many as 29 points in Game 4 and never trailing after taking a 9-8 lead. "There's not much to say about this game," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "They took it to us." The Thunder held the Lakers to 41.5 percent shooting and, for the second straight game, won the rebounding battle, 50-43.

The Lakers entered Game 4 pledging to play much differently against Oklahoma City than they did in their Game 3 loss, but it turned out to be all talk and no action. On one possession, Lakers center Andrew Bynum received an entry pass from Lakers guard Derek Fisher, met a double team and missed an open layup. Neither Bynum nor Lakers forward Pau Gasol made an effort to grab the rebound, leading Oklahoma City foward Kevin Durant to lead the break, driving past Ron Artest by the perimeter and ending the play with a one-handed slam.

THAT'S teamwork and hustle at one end, but a lack of it by LA on the other. Oddly, Lakers star Kobe Bryant didn't take his first shot until 15 minutes into the game as he was trying to get his teammates going first. However, the real problem was that there was no teamwork on defense or the boards.

No team as an eighth seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed after trailing 2-0 in a best-of-seven first-round series, so the Thunder doesn't have history on its side. On the other hand, the 2004 Red Sox didn't have history on their side when they trailed the Yankees 3-0 in the ALCS, but that didn't matter.

In Portland, the Blazers rallied around the surprise return of Brandon Roy to top the Suns, 96-87. LaMarcus Aldridge, who had been double-teamed all series long without Roy, benefited the most from his return, with 31 points and 11 rebounds. "I'd certainly say it gave them a lift," Suns guard Steve Nash admitted.

The Suns in the previous two games had stymied Portland with an up-tempo pick-and-roll, kicking the ball out to Jason Richardson, who had a career playoff-high 42 points in Game 3. The Blazers caught on in Game 4, limiting Richardson to 15 points.

After Game 1, Gentry had made the coaching move of the series, putting small forward Grant Hill on Blazers point guard Andre Miller. Before Game 4, Nate McMillan made his countermove, benching struggling Rudy Fernandez in favor of Jerryd Bayless. McMillan wanted aggressiveness and Bayless finished with 11 points and six assists. His approach seemed to be contagious, as the Blazers as a whole played with more fight. Most notable was veteran Juwan Howard, who had eight points, seven rebounds and intangibles, such as deflections, fouls, and going into the crowd in pursuit of a ball. Phoenix scored a season-low 87 points.

So much of teamwork is defense, working the glass, boxing out, hustling back on a break and taking the extra effort to get a hand in every shooter's face. I recall one year ago the Miami Heat looked dead while getting blown out in Game 1 by Atlanta. Yet, they didn't pack it in, winning the next two games, including a 107-78 dismantling of the Hawks in Game 3. And it wasn't all Dwyane Wade. Jermaine O'Neal had 22 points, 10 boards, while Udonis Haslem grabbed as many rebounds in the first quarter as the Hawks did! The defense held Atlanta to 36.7% shooting. Miami also set a franchise playoff record with 12 blocks and held Atlanta to 29 points in the first half.

Teamwork and unselfish play starts with the coach, who has to be forceful enough to preach it, be a good enough teacher so that players absorb its importance, and be able to soothe over any egos that might be hurt (or ship those guys out of town or the end of the bench). It also falls upon the players, particularly the stars, to be smart enough to understand the value of team play and think about wins, not stats.

Remember six years ago when the Pistons under Coach Larry Brown were all about teamwork? They played great defense and took pride in their balanced scoring, winning a title in 2004.

Last season when Detroit limped into the playoffs, they instead were into finger-pointing, complaining and false hustle. Detroit coach Mike Curry said a year ago when his team was down 0-3, "Guys are down, but that's anywhere when you're down like this in a series. It's tough." And for teams that lack teamwork, it's impossible. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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