Lakers/Thunder: Westbrook goes wild, but Lakers’ balance wins out

Jeff Skibiski —  January 18, 2011
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

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.

Jeff Skibiski

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14 responses to Lakers/Thunder: Westbrook goes wild, but Lakers’ balance wins out

  1. I have tried to keep things on an even keel when the comments seemed to view the sky as falling, so I guess I can complain after a win.

    The observation that Pau looks to be breaking out of his funk – if we only look at this game – only strengthens my feeling that he has a hard time whenever we face a team with two bigs and he has to constantly bang with one of them. The last two years have seen him make great progress in this area, but this year seems to be a regression.

    I will be watching for this whenever we play a team with a tough front line (San Antonio or Boston for instance).

  2. Good points, indeed, Craig. At this point, I think Pau has been in such a deep funk of late, even a solid, if unspectacular game against Oklahoma City’s undersized bigs is something to celebrate modestly. The hope, of course, is that this leads to a more general resurgence in the coming weeks. If that doesn’t happen, you’re totally right — neither he nor the Lakers will fare well against the San Antonio’s and Boston’s of the league. Interesting times ahead…

  3. The initial reports were that he was having relationship problems. Phil kind of alluded to that in December. Now it seems that Pau just doesn’t have any life. He doesn’t look tired. He looks slow and weak. He is getting driven back into the paint, unable to hold his ground. On offense he is settling for outside shots and being pushed out of his deep position.

    Is Bynum posting in his area? Is LO taking away his thunder? San Antonio isn’t the issue. Boston is. If they smell weakness, they will abuse him and he may not be the same for the rest of the year. This is where you question Joe freakin Smith not some bruiser like Maresse Speights.

  4. It was a good competent win with great positive points for many Lakers. Great to see some success for Stevie Blake, as you mentioned, great D by Ron Ron and it also appears that he is seeming more confident on offense. He seemed not to hesitate as much in this game. Lamar continued a season of stellar performances. I’m not worried about Pau. There’s a reason his play early in the season was getting such kudos from all quarters-it’s because he was playing at an all-world level. That’s hard to sustain. It also coincided with Big Drew being out. I think Pau is adjusting to Drew being back. He’ll be fine. Great to see Fish with a fantastic game also and Shannon also. Yes, it was a bit scrappy but still well-executed enough to provide hope for future encounters with elite teams.

  5. Pau is still young so it wouldn’t surprise me if his recent slump was due to a break-up or a crush or whatever.

    Still, he needs to step out of that…

  6. I’m an ardent Shannon Brown fan ( as my moniker can
    attest to). BUT- I’m hoping against hope that Shannon
    can RELAX out there. He seems to try too hard ( especially when he starts out in the last of the 1st and
    2nd quarters. Eventually, he remembers to relax and
    then MAGIC happens. He’s got to be relaxed and not
    try too hard. It screws everything up for him.

  7. What was impressive was this grind-it-out win over a young and athletic team on a back to back game. Westbrook is simply unstoppable at this point. Even Kobe, when he was trying to lock him down like last year’s playoffs was unable to do so.

    However, we did a great job on the other players. If I were the Thunder, I’d try my best to move Jeff Green for a more traditional power forward. Their lack of size will ultimately be their undoing.

  8. 3.
    Pau has to be confident that he can make that J because teams are packing the paint with him and Drew in the lineup together. That 10 to 15 foot jumpshot needs to be respected by the defense in order for him to create space for himself or a teammate. This year he seems to be hesitant to catch and shoot, instead he will overdribble trying to get closer to the basket allowing the defense too recover. Last night against OKC he did a better job of incorporating the two over the course of the game.

  9. I am not too worried about Gasol because he did this same thing last year! People forget that he played All-world level to start and end the year but wasn’t great during the middle.

    Here are some of his stats by month from last season:
    Nov: 59% FG, 18.4 pts, 11.6 reb
    Dec: 53% FG, 17.0 pts, 11.8 reb
    Jan: 51% FG, 17.5 pts, 9.5 reb
    Feb: 49% FG, 17.0 pts, 11.3 reb
    Mar: 54% FG, 18.5 pts, 11.4 reb
    Apr: 62% FG, 24.3 pts, 12.6 reb

    That being said, while he continues to struggle somewhat I wouldn’t mind seeing more Bynum and Odom out there with Gasol resting a little. I like how Bynum has been a force inside and Odom is finally turning into a consistent player (should be an all-star in my opinion). I also wouldn’t mind seeing Blake getting some run with the starters as playing with Kobe would likely bring out the best in him and help him snap out of his little funk (besides, it isn’t like Fisher is playing any better anyways).

  10. Reign on Parades January 18, 2011 at 9:13 am

    I would classify Odom and Bynum as good PnR defenders (like a poor man’s KG and Duncan respectively) and Gasol can be great when he wants to be too. It’s kind of strange then that we’re so mediocre at it as a team; even given Derek Fisher and co. on the perimeter.

    But we’ve lived with that sort of thing for years. I’m talking Shaq era, Magic era, I’m pretty sure the last time the Lakers defended it well none of us were born.

    What’s disconcerting to me is the rebounding, particularly the lack of rotations after our bigs show on the PnR

    We’re 23rd in Defensive Rebounding% ahead such defensive juggernauts as Memphis, Detroit, New York, Utah, Washington, Phoenix and Golden State. Memphis and and Utah may seem surprising on that list but keep in mind Z-Bo and Al Jeff never box out ever.

    I know some of this has been the Gasol/Odom smaller front court for much of the season but I am still very, very concerned.

  11. @9

    I agree that more Bynum would be great, but he cannot catch a break right now….

    Ever since the Knicks game ejection he has been in constant foul trouble. The Dude Abides rightly pointed out in an earlier thread that Drew is getting called for breathing on people.

    Whether it is retribution for his complaining or not, Drew needs to keep his mouth shut for awhile, or it’s going to continue.

  12. Pau just needs to commit on offense and defense and he’s been doing that since the Phoneix win. You want Gasol to take that jump shot from 10-15 feet out (which he can hit) and make the defense respect it. Or give the ball up, reset, or try to go inside for a layup/dunk while he cries (every time) for a foul. The Lakers mistake was to think he could carry the team while others got back into shape. He will never be that type of player. He is a great second or third option that will punish defenses with passing, shooting and fleeting moments of determination around the basket.

  13. Kobe really controlled that game for the start. Other than 5 missed freethrows he played a really good game. Fisher played well. Blake actually played good defense in the few minutes he was in. Odom has just been playing well of late and its great to see. Also, Artest defense go without saying. It sucks for Bynum right now because he gets hammered on one end but doesn’t get any calls and then gets nothing but ticky tack fouls on the other end.

    The negatives were the way the bigs /kobe defend the pick and roll. Kobe was doing a poor job of fighting over the top of the screen (which he should have been going under the screen anyway) and Pau was laying back allowing Westbrook to attack him at full speed. Kobe eventually began to lay off Westbrook so that when the screen came he was able to go under it.

    Pau didn’t rebound the ball particularly well because he allowed Westbrook to strip him a few times. I’m also disappointed with Pau on the offensive end. He just cannot create a decent shot for himself anymore. Last night all but one of Pau’s made baskets were assisted on and the other one was a tip in. Its absolutely nothing wrong with the team getting assist. But in Pau’s case, he’s not scoring if someone doesn’t set him up for a wide open shot. Otherwise, Pau has taken nothing but contested fade a way jumpers. This is indicative of him shooting only 48% from the field in the month of January and 49% in December. Whatever the issue is, Pau needs to get it together.