The Lakers would never admit that they needed a win against a potential contender in the middle of January, which is precisely why that job falls onto people like us. This team, yes — the back-to-back defending champions — needed a solid, momentum-building victory over a strong playoff team and they got exactly that tonight, even if the kinks in their armor were still readily apparently throughout their balanced 101-94 win over Oklahoma City.
From the outset, Kobe primarily played the role of facilitator and did so adeptly, leading to five players scoring in double figures, led by his own 21. This game might be remembered more for Gasol’s resurgent effort than anything else, though, as the Spaniard matched Kobe’s scoring total, while also nabbing seven boards to go along with three blocked shots. I actually attended tonight’s game and can personally attest that the tension during Pau’s early possessions was palpable. Both his teammates and an an anxious crowd kept waiting for him to grab the bull by the horns so to speak and get back to playing a more aggressive brand of basketball. On offense, he finally came through in the clutch for the first time in a while, hitting a pair of buckets on consecutive possessions with under four minutes to go that swung momentum back in favor of the Lakers. That he only finished 8-19 isn’t really the point here; it’s more that he broke out of his shell and took 19 shots to begin with, instead of resorting to the tentative play we’ve become accustomed to for a number of games now.
The Lakers defensive story was a bit of a mixed bag tonight, but overall, it was a step in the right direction as they held one of the league’s most exciting, fast-paced offenses to 42.5% shooting, including a paltry 2-22 from beyond the arc. On the downside, Russell Westbrook absolutely terrorized L.A. throughout the night, repeatedly driving past Lakers defenders as if they were stuck in quick sand en route to a game-high 32 points and 12 assists. Anyone who’s still questioning his status as an All-Star this season need look no further than his performance tonight on a national stage. At this point, I’m not really sure the Lakers backcourt can whip up an antidote for point guards like Westbrook, but Bynum and Gasol can certainly do a better job of closing than they did tonight. While stopping Russell was a sore spot for the Lakers, Ron Artest’s outstanding defense on Kevin Durant was probably the difference in tonight’s game. The NBA’s scoring leader was held to just 24 points on a woeful 8-24 from the field. Aside from an early scoring burst in the first quarter and a brief reboot when Luke Walton was guarding him in the second half, he never really established any kind of rhythm, which ultimately hurt Oklahoma City when they needed him to come through down the stretch.
Kudos to Derek Fisher for setting the tone early by coming out of the gates firing, on his way to a season-high 15 points. The second unit also did a solid job of holding the lead while Kobe and Artest sat for almost the first six minutes of the fourth quarter with the lead wavering around six or seven points at the time. Lamar Odom (16 points, seven rebounds) deserves the bulk of praise for that, though, as he nailed two tide-changing threes and cleaned up around the hoop, too. Even though it’s silly to look too much into one made shot, Steve Blake’s lone three-point attempt and make looked more confident than anything he’s thrown up toward the hoop in the past week. Though L.A. got away with it tonight, relinquishing another second half lead — this time, a 15-point third quarter lead — will eventually come around to bit them hard against talented teams like the Thunder. The fact that the clearly undersized Oklahoma City bigs (40 rebounds) were able to match the Lakers (41 boards) on the glass is also cause for concern.
In the playoffs, there are gonna be grueling, grind-it-out types of games like we saw in tonight’s affair. The Thunder had their chances down the stretch and very easily could have escaped STAPLES Center with a big road win, with L.A. dodging several bullets in the final two minutes. We’ll focus on the positive, though, and credit the Lakers for taking a punch from one of the better teams in the Western Conference and finally delivering a knockout blow of their own. It’s a cautious sign of optimism as they embark on a brutal season-ending stretch, beginning with a tilt in Big D this Wednesday.