Archives For January 2011

Records: Lakers 31-12 (2nd in West), Mavericks 26-14 (5th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.0 (1st in NBA), Mavericks 107.1 (15th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.0 (9th in NBA), Mavericks 104.7 (10th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Deshawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (both out); Mavericks:Rodrique Beaubois& Caron Butler (both out), Tyson Chandler (questionable)

The Lakers Coming in: Whether or not you consider the Lakers’ win vs. the Thunder their best of the season, it was definitely good to see a W against a very good opponent. The Lakers played a very good 1st half and a tremendous 2nd half to close out the type of young, talented, and athletic team that has given them fits all year. So, coming off a win like that the Lakers are now in a position to springboard into a very difficult part of their schedule. Tonight the Mavs await andwhile they’re not playing their best (more on that in a second) they surely represent another quality team that is expected to perform well come playoff time.

In order to rack up the wins against quality teams, though, the Lakers must start to improve in some of the areas that have been hampering them lately. First off all, that means getting more minutes out of Bynum. Big ‘Drew has been plagued with fouls in the past couple of games and it’s really killed his rhythm on offense while also removing the Lakers interior defensive anchor on defense. They also need more performances like the OKC game from their point guards. Fisher had a very good shooting game andBlake (though only making one shot) looked more aggressive by at least acting like he wanted to shoot more (but not being able to because defenders were in good position to contest his would be shots).  With Kobe playing well of late, LO still locked in, Ron finding his stride, and Pau now seemingly playing better too the Lakers are poised to start to make a push but they’ll need the other key pieces to come along for the ride. Here’s hoping that starts now.

The Mavericks Coming in:  Injuries have simply killed this team lately. Once the 2nd seed and one of the hotter teams in the league, the Mavs have lost 6 games in a row and9 of 11. After Caron Butler went down for the season with an injured knee and Dirk missed games due to the slight spain of his own, the Mavs simply couldn’t keep up offensively and started their tumble down the standings. They now sit in 5th place in the conference but are only 3 games ahead in the loss column over the 7th place team (Denver).

However, things may begin to fall back into place for the Mavs. First off all, Dirk is back from injury, and while he didn’t perform well in his first game back (7 points in only 14 minutes, plus he got ejected for arguing), in Monday’s game against the Pistons he put up 32 points on only 17 shots (though, in defeat). Now that their offensive anchor is back, the Mavs shouldn’t have the same issues scoring the ball andjust have to get back to playing quality defense. The return of Tyson Chandler (he missed the last couple games withthe flu, but is hopeful to play tonight) should help with that. In the end, I think everyone in Big D is hopeful that a loss to the lowly Pistons was rock bottom and they can get back to playing the type of ball that had them pegged as one of the best teams in the league through the first 30 games of the season. And they’ll look to get on track tonight vs. the visiting defending champs.

Mavericks Blogs: Rob Mahoney does an excellent job over at The Two Man Game (amongst other places). Go there and learn some things on the Mavs.

Keys to game:The Mavshave been trying for years to match up with the Lakers and Spurs and this year they’ve put together the roster that actually comes closest for them to do so. So, tonight will depend a lot on whether or not the Mavs actually have the ingredients to contend with the Lakers’ strengths or if they’re still a ways behind.

Defensively, the Lakers are going to have to deal with a team that plays at a slower pace but will selectively push the ball when it’s to their advantage. Jason Kidd, despite his age, is still one of the better floor generals in the league in that he’s excellent at recognizing the weakness of other team and then working to exploit it. Tonight he’ll be very aware that the Lakers struggle when the ball is pushed back at them and I’m sure he’ll try to run up the Lakers backs in order to get Shawn Marion shots going to the basket and his shooters (Dirk, Barrea, Terry) open shots at the three point line against a collapsing defense.  So, the Lakers must run back hard and be aware of who is on the floor in order to match up in transition and not give up the looks that the Mavs want to get.

In the half court, the Mavsdo the same things they’ve been doing for a while – run P&R with Kidd probing the D and run isolations at the elbow for Dirk to go one on one against defenders that aren’t used to guarding 7’0” bigs that can create their own shots out to the 3 point line. Stopping Dirk will be the #1 priority, though, so that means plenty of extra attention directed towards him. Luckily in Gasol and Odom, the Lakers have good individual defenders to put on Dirk but I’d love to see LA mix up their coverages on him by doubling when he puts the ball on the ground or feinting the double and then recovering when he looks to pass. Dirk is not a turnover prone player, but if the Lakers can get him out of his rhythm and make him see things that aren’t really developing that way they may bait him into some bad possessions.

On the other side of the ball, the Mavs defense may present one of the biggest challenges the Lakers’ offense see all year. The reason is that the Mavs play one of the best zone defenses in the entire league and the Lakersdon’t really deal with the zone that well. In order to crack the Mavs’ zone D, the Lakers will need to use crisp ball andplayer movement while also acting decisively. I’d love to see quick ball reversals with Kobe at the top of the zone, Gasol or Odom flashing to the middle, and the other big sitting in the short corner ready to duck in for high-low actions. If the Lakers can get Kobe at the top of the key isolated against Kidd, Terry, or Barrea he can easily get to the elbow area to elevate and shoot his jumper. If Gasol and/or Odom can get into the creases of the D either at the FT line or along the baseline, they too should be able to get easy shots in the teeth of the defense. This will take discipline on offense, though, and that’s something that hasn’t always been there for the Lakers this season (despite their efficiency).

Lastly, the battle of the benches will be key tonight. In Barrea, Terry, Cardinal, and Haywood the Mavs have 4 rotation players that they inherently trust to play well. Terry is, again, one of the leading candidates for 6th man of the year while Cardinal stepped in admirably for Dirk when he was out injured. While the Mavs trust Barrea so much they’ll often go to three guard line ups where he’s flanked by Kidd and Terry to close out games. So, the Lakers bench of LO, Shannon, Blake, and Walton will need to have good games tonight in order to match the production of the Mavs’ reserves (while also holding them below their normal levels).  If one bench drastically outplays the other, that team will probably win this game.

The Mavs face an uphill climb tonight. Per the Elias Sports Bureau this is the longest losing streak by the Mavs since the 2000 season andthey’re trying to snap it against the back to back champs. However, you know what they say about about a person with their back against the wall so the Lakers will need to be prepared for the Mavs’ best effort tonight. This win could catapult them back into their winning ways. Meanwhile, the Lakers need to win these games not so much as a confidence boost but because they’re finally starting to play well and beating another top team will only continue the momentum along that was slightly interrupted by the Clippers game. Here’s hoping that the road team is the one that uses this game as their springboard.

Where you can watch: 6:00pm start out west on KCAL and nationally on ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Dissecting Kobe Bryant’s game is basically a full time job for fans and media alike, and while he’s frequently described as efficient — darn near ruthless, actually — in the economy of his footwork, the speed at which he can dial up his offensive game or reach sweet spots around the court, Bryant isn’t necessarily viewed as an ultra-efficient scorer. Those finding fault more generally with his game call him a volume shooter, latching on to games like Dec. 28 in San Antonio as an example of how, when push comes to shove, he’ll always scuttle the offense. No question, from time to time it happens, but overall Kobe measures games very well. As a team the Lakers have assorted issues this season, but fundamentally don’t have a Kobe Problem. Not even close. Particularly right now.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Time and again, Kobe Bryant’s expressions told the whole story. He clenched his teeth after nailing a contested jumper. He scolded and then encouraged Pau Gasol after bobbling a pass. He barked orders to Ron Artest on where to move within the offense. And he let out grunts as he attacked the rim with a verve that harks back to his young years. The Lakers’ 101-94 victory Monday night over the Oklahoma City Thunder featured Bryant scoring 21 points on seven-for-12 shooting, dishing out seven assists and hauling down five rebounds with a perfectly nuanced method. He forced Thunder defenders to take his outside shot seriously. He burned the OKC frontline for allowing him to drive the lane. He exploited mismatches by setting up various teammates, including Gasol (21 points), Lamar Odom (16 points), Derek Fisher (season-high 15 points), Andrew Bynum (10) and Artest (seven points).

From C. A. Clark, Silver Screen and Roll: The Kobe Bryant/Pau Gasol dynamic is about as well worn at this point as the tires from a stock car that ran the entire Daytona 500 without changing.  On the one hand, you have Kobe Bryant who, despite his considerable greatness, will never be the most efficient player on the court, because a majority of the shots he takes are difficult looks.  If basketball were like diving, with degree of difficulty playing a role in figuring out the final score, Kobe Bryant would easily be the best player in basketball history.  Instead, a 20 foot turn-around step-back fade-away jump shot is worth the same two points as an uncontested layup.

From Dwain Price, Kansas City Star: It seemed just a short time ago that the Mavericks were 24-5 and in an all-out sprint with the San Antonio Spurs for the best record in the NBA. Now they’re stuck in neutral and on the verge of becoming the first Mavericks team to lose seven consecutive games since Mark Cuban bought the franchise Jan. 4, 2000. Not exactly a good time for the two-time defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers to make their first appearance at American Airlines Center. The Mavericks have lost nine of their last 11 games and can’t seem to get going. “For some reason, now it seems like it’s just got us snowballing and now we can’t stop it,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “We’ve got to all be on the same page and give a little bit more effort.

From Breene Murphy, Clippers Blog: With the jubilation in Clipperdom as fervent as it has been in a long time, murmurs of the impossible have created their own undercurrent. The record says 15-25, but those last 14 games weren’t a fluke, right? They were a progression meant to build upon and grow. Like Blake’s personal numbers, the team’s have only improved from month to month. October/November yielded a 3-16 record, December a 7-8 record and now, in January, a 5-2 record. And with the way the team has been playing, knocking off the Heat and the Lakers in the same week, it bears asking, can this team make the playoffs? Before you spit up your drink, take a second here. Both of Vinny’s Chicago teams were well outside of the playoff picture before finishing strong. Even Baron’s Golden State Warriors, a season after beating the Mavericks started 0-6 before righting themselves to win 48 games. And in this year’s West, 48 games isn’t needed. Strong finishes can happen.

From Kelly Dwyer, Ball Don’t Lie: We mean it. Don’t break our heart again, Baron Davis. It can’t handle it. There’s too much at stake. If you haven’t noticed, then you need to stop reading right now. Because if you haven’t been paying attention to the fabulous Los Angeles Clippers of late, then you have no business wasting your time on an NBA blog, reading paeans to Baron Davis. So, as you’ve no doubt noticed, Baron Davis has been beasting of late. Beasting relative to his terrible play to start the season, but beasting never the less. Since Christmas, Baron is averaging 14.6 points per game spread out over 10 contests. He’s only playing around 30 minutes a night, and shooting 46.5 percent from the floor, which is a killer mark for someone who has slogged his way to a 40.9 career percentage from the floor.

From Kelly Dwyer, Ball Don’t Lie: Every box score and play-by-play outlet recorded this, as directed by the Boston home scorers, as an assist for Rajon — when it was clearly an assist for Ray Allen. Actually, that’s not even true in the slightest. Allen made a nice pass to Shaquille O’Neal, who then pump faked, dribbled, turned over his other shoulder, pump faked, and scored on the weak side. It shouldn’t have even been an assist for Allen. And yet, somehow, Rajon got the dime. Now, this isn’t a huge deal. But this does warrant scrutiny, because this is the only part of the NBA landscape (outside of the often infuriating block/charge call) that is left solely up to discretion. Not to discredit these fabulous playmakers, but we’ve seen John Stockton, Chris Paul and Deron Williams all take in assists due to very liberal takes on what constitutes an assist from their home scorers. And, as we develop more and more eras as the decades roll on, it would be nice to compare point guards who are separated by 20 years with a degree of certainty we can rely upon.

From Greg Cote, Miami Herald: Esquire magazine had a recent feature on Dwyane Wade in which the writer (who must be pictured breathless) refers to the Heat as a team of “ineffable puissance.” For those of us in the real world that roughly translates to indescribably powerful or mighty. Not lately, friends. Not lately. Tuesday night’s 93-89 overtime home loss to the Atlanta Hawks marked the Heat’s season-worst fourth consecutive defeat, which, around here, with this team, surely might foment a resumption of the wailing and angst and national dissection such as we have not seen since that staggering 9-8 start to the NBA season. It should do no such thing. If we have learned anything from the first half of this season, it is that everything about this team gets magnified, but that the real measuring must wait until the playoffs. Nobody wants to wait.

From Lithuanians proved that amateur basketball can be just as exciting as the professional sport in somewhat bizarre circumstances. Rolandas Dovydaitis put on a real show for the small number of spectators, who gathered to watch an amateur league game in Kaunas, setting the country’s world record for most three-point shots attempted in a single game. The record was broken by a country mile as the player jacked up an astonishing 124 attempts from beyond the three-point line, making 24 of the shots. Even such a circus couldn’t stop Rolandas Dovydaitis and his team from winning as they still triumphed 103-70 in the end. “Last game our opponents let us shoot wide-open three-pointers. We gave it a little thought and wondered why a single player couldn’t do all of that alone. If our opponents allow me to shoot more than 70 three-pointers, I should be in the record books after the end of the game,” Dovydaitis said just before the tip-off of the game.

Without watching the games, you’d probably be surprised to hear that January has been one of Kobe Bryant’s best months.  I mean, if you just examine his game log, you’ll see that his scoring numbers, rebounds, and assists are all hovering around his season averages while his long range shooting isn’t any different than it’s been all year either (for the month he’s still averaging a little over 3 attempts while knocking down 30% of his shots from three point land).  Even his FTA’s per game are about the same as they’ve been all year.  So, why would I state that he’s playing better? 

It’s simple really – he’s playing more of an attacking style.  Below is a video showing some of the plays Kobe made against the Warriors last week when he went for 39 points in an exciting win:

If there’s one thing that stands out from that clip is that Kobe is doing so much more work going to the basket. Sure, there are some standard post ups and we also saw his patented jumper out of the triple threat that is a staple of his offensive arsenal. But besides those plays, every shot is going to the basket; every play is one where he’s actively using his dribble to either get all the way to the rim or get inside 10 feet to shoot a relatively easy (at least for him) jumper in the lane.  If you’ve been watching Kobe all year, that’s a big departure from the player that either did work extensively from the post or fired long range jumpers off one or two dribbles.

I know what you’re thinking though (I was thinking it too) – It was the Warriors! Of course Kobe was attacking one of most porous defenses in the league!

However, this style of play hasn’t been limited to that single game last week. Against the Thunder last night, Kobe consistently attacked off the dribble to try and get to the basket to earn better position on the floor. Primarily working against Thabo Sefolosha (a defender that’s given him problems in years past) , Kobe didn’t settle for long range, contested jumpers but rather used the threat of his jumper to keep his man off balance and then penetrate into the teeth of the defense.  When he didn’t get all the way to the rim he’d often pull up to shoot, but if the defender was going to get a good contest on his shot he’d just dump the ball off to a teammate that was moving into open space. (To be fair, Kobe’s jump passing did lead to a couple turnovers, but I balance that with the fact that he was attempting to pass out of trouble rather than firing up a questionable shot.)

And this is the trend we’ve seen since the start of the new year.  Kobe’s just consistently been using his dribble with more purpose to get into the paint. Against the Thunder, 6 of his 12 shots came within 10 feet of the basket. Against the Nets the ratio was 10 of 19. Against the Warriors it was 8 of 21.  Against the Knicks it was 13 of 28.  And when you look at the other games this month, the only ones where we didn’t really attack the paint were Phoenix (whose zone D kept the entire Laker team perimeter oriented) and the Cavs (where Kobe only took 10 shots all game in a historic blowout). Essentially, in every game this month Kobe has been taking nearly half his shots within 10 feet of the basket.  This is in strong contrast to his year long average of about 37%.

Also, I sort of lied when I said that Kobe’s standard boxscore stats don’t show any improvement. In the month of January, he’s shooting his highest percentage from the floor this season (48%).  In 6 of the Lakers’ 10 games this month he’s shot 50% or better and only been below 45% twice.  If you’d rather ignore the stats and go back to the eyeball test, check out a couple of his highlight drives from the Thunder game last night.  Needless to say, we weren’t seeing those types of plays earlier in the year.  And to that all I can say is welcome back attacking Kobe, we’ve missed you.  (Though I doubt wing defenders around the league are saying the same thing.)

*All shot location information gathered from HoopData’s advanced boxscores.

Harry How/Getty Images

Harry How/Getty Images

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: The Lakers didn’t deal well with the extra intensity of their Christmas showdown with the Miami Heat. When they played a game Monday night that had a considerable playoff atmosphere against 2010 playoff challenger the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers were back on their game. The Lakers came away with a 101-94 victory at Staples Center by firming up their defense in the second half, when the Thunder could not. Pau Gasol dug deep to stabilize his game after getting chastised at one point after halftime by Coach Phil Jackson — and talking back — for not securing a rebound from Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook was a demon with 32 points, 12 assists and five rebounds. Gasol and Kobe Bryant each had 21 points for the Lakers, who also got 16 from Lamar Odom and a season-high 15 from Derek Fisher.

From Andy Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Kobe Bryant’s best Kwote of the night came when asked about his uncharacteristic five misses at the charity stripe: “That was point shaving.” All jokes aside, he also shared some big time props for Russell Westbrook, who did the overwhelming amount of damage to the Lakers: “The biggest compliment I can give him is the fact that you can’t treat him like a role player. What I mean by that is that some nights he’ll have good games, some nights he’ll have bad games. I had to tell the guys at halftime you have to approach him as a great basketball player, because that’s what he is. You can’t just assume he’ll miss shots.”

From Dave McMenamin, Land O’ Lakers: Aside from a late third quarter turnover when Bryant threw it out of bounds to nobody when he anticipated Pau Gasol would roll to the basket, Bryant maintained a perfect mix of when to pass and when to shoot. Bryant had five assists in the game before he had five shot attempts. After Bryant had eight assists and just 10 shot attempts in L.A.’s 55-point rout of the Cavaliers last week, Jackson said he would like to see more of Bryant wearing his distributor hat. Of course, Bryant went on to score 39 in his next game against the Warriors, but Monday he helped keep the offense balanced. Bryant finished with seven assists and 18 points on 12 shot attempts, allowing for five Lakers to reach double-digit scoring. His biggest dime of the night came with 3:47 to go in the fourth quarter when he found Gasol for a jumper that put L.A. up 10 and caused the Thunder to call timeout. As Bryant made his way to the bench, he sought out Gasol to praise him for rewarding Bryant’s faith in him. He shifted back to scoring mode late to put in the final free throws to cushion the lead.

From Dexter Fishmore, Silver Screen And Roll: It felt like spring in Los Angeles today. Temps in the high seventies beckoned you outside in the afternoon, and a tasty, nationally televised hoops contest enticed you back indoors at night. And as was the case last April, the opponent in town was the Oklahoma City Thunder, trying to snap an uncomfortably long losing streak at Staples Center. They’ll have to try again their next time through, as the Lakers beat them at home for the 11th straight time, 101 to 94. How tonight’s game unfolded no doubt seemed familiar to anyone who watched the two teams’ first-round playoff battle last season: the Thunder got brilliant play from Russell Westbrook, low-efficiency scoring from Kevin Durant and loads of sweet nothing from everyone else. This, as they’ve been reminded, is not a roadmap to knocking off the defending champs.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: A new player introduction flashed before the Staples Center scoreboard that perfectly summed up the team’s state of being. “A new dynasty demands excellence, requires patience. A dynasty falls down, rises up and rages on. A champion never stops and never quits.” In between the platitudes, the video featured several highlights capturing the 2010-11 season, ranging from Kobe Bryant jumpers, Pau Gasol hooks, Andrew Bynum dunks and Lamar Odom drives. But that video served as nothing more than just a movie trailer that featured all the best parts but ignored all the plot twists along the way. And in the Lakers’ case, there’s been several instances all season that’s added intrigue to their quest to three-peat. Winning streaks marred by poor performances against both sub.-500 and marquee opponents. Reports focusing on the state of Bryant’s and Andrew Bynum’s health, Pau Gasol’s tardiness, Ron Artest’s frustration with Phil Jackson, Lamar Odom’s fixation with celebrity, Derek Fisher’s inconsistency and the team’s overall hunger.

From Royce, The Daily Thunder: Only against a select few teams can you feel good about playing a solid game and losing. One of those teams is definitely the Lakers, especially with the game in Los Angeles. The Thunder were in a tough spot tonight. The Lakers had just dropped a bad one against the Clippers and were in the market for redemption. The game was of course in Staples, where things tend to lean the yellow way. And for the most part, especially in the half court, the Lakers present a pretty tough matchup for Oklahoma City. Still though, it feels like one slipped through the cracks here. It feels like an opportunity to beat the Lakers in Los Angeles just barely squeezed through the Thunder’s fingers. Statistically, across the board, the Thunder really were right there. Field goal percentage wasn’t a big gap. The Lakers only outrebounded OKC by one. Only nine turnovers for OKC compared to LA’s 15. Both teams made 18 free throws. Everything was pretty much even, sans one category. Three-point shooting.

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.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Records: Lakers 30-12 (2nd in West), Thunder 27-13 (3rd in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.0 (1st in NBA), Thunder 110.0 (8th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.0 (9th in NBA), Thunder 107.9 (17th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff (out); Thunder: None

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers went into yesterday afternoon’s hallway battle with the Clippers winners of seven straight only to see their streak snapped by a young, upstart squad that has been playing very well recently. Tonight, the Lakers face the epitome of young, upstart squads in the NBA in the Oklahoma City Thunder. Of course, the Lakers would have loved to have won their previous game, but they’re coming into this game with the Thunder with an 8-2 record since the return of Andrew Bynum.

It’s hard to be upset with the Lakers recent play, and the improvement began with Kobe’s sudden increase in offensive efficiency. During the course of the Lakers’ last five games, Kobe has shot 48 percent while scoring 26.6 points on 19 shots per game. Further more, he’s averaged 6.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists during those same games. Ron Artest, interestingly, has also seen his offense take a dramatic rise. While 11 points per game during his last five is nothing to write home about, he has shot 50 percent from three and 44 percent from the field – all well above his, respective, 8.1/39.6 3FG%/ 40.7FG% season numbers.

Also, with the increase in some specific offensive areas, the Lakers’ collective defensive efforts have been fantastic, headlined by giving up only 57 points to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. During their seven game winning streak, the Lakers only allowed an average of 88.1 points per game – which would place them at the top of the league. Andrew Bynum, since his return, has done a great job at challenging shots and allowing parameter defenders to play aggressive with limited consequences. He’s taken the burden of guarding opposing teams’ centers from Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, and the team has reaped the benefits.

The Thunder Coming in: The last time we saw the Thunder, Kobe air balled a potential series clinching shot that Pau Gasol grabbed and proceeded to put in to close out the Thunder, in Oklahoma City, after an extremely fun, intense sixth game. Much like the Lakers, the Thunder are coming into this match up with their team from last very much intact and playing some of the best basketball of their respective season. The Thunder didn’t begin the season scorching, much like a lot of people expected them to, but they’re now winners of four straight and seven of their last 10, with the current third spot in the Western Conference.

They’ve been led by Kevin Durant, who is well on his way to a second straight scoring title; and Russell Westbrook, who is playing the point guard position as well as anyone in the league. With Durant’s ability to score at will, Westbrook’s inhuman quickness and the team’s collective athleticism, they’ve been able to collect some recent wins against some very good teams, Orlando and Dallas the most recent.

Thunder Blogs: Everything Royce is doing over at Daily Thunder is fantastic. Make sure you go check them out.

Keys to the Game: The only thing different about this year’s Thunder team and last season’s is the added year of experience they’ve gained. This is a team that knows its identity and will go out and play their game, which means they’re going to run early and often. If the Lakers want to win this game, they have to play much like they did early in the third quarter against the Clippers. They have to keep the pace slow, keep their turnover rate down and force guards to shoot over the length of the Lakers. The Thunder are not a great three point shooting team (33 percent as a unit), with James Harden and Kevin Durant as their only real threats from behind the arch. The Lakers have to keep guys like Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor out of the paint in the half court.

Offensively, the Lakers must be patient, but quick. When the Lakers start rushing things is when they have unforced errors that lead to turnovers. When they start moving into their 1-on-1 individualistic offense, the team efficiency declines. So quick ball movement, but patient within their offense will keep this younger and smaller group off of their heels. Too many turnovers or too many missed shots could prove to be the demise of the Lakers tonight. As we saw during that first round match up last season, if you give these kids an inch, they’ll take a foot. A heavy dose of Gasol-Bynum-Odom is going to be necessary against such an undersized team. Of course, this is much easier said than done, but it can be done.

Where you can watch:  7:30pm start time on TNT. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710am.

 Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

From Kevin Ding, OC Register: To understand just how much the Lakers have going on during the regular season, just consider how Kobe Bryant even has side business to his side business. Bryant has filmed a movie – yes, he is acting in it, and it is really being termed a movie – with a full-fledged Hollywood director: Robert Rodriguez, who made “Spy Kids” and “Sin City.” The movie will be released – and figures to go viral, Nike surely assumes – in its entirety in mid-February at All-Star weekend, when the game for which Bryant is the leading fan vote-getter will be played at Staples Center. It is all being done as a promotion for the Zoom Kobe VI shoe and Bryant’s new “True Colors” apparel line. The movie will be billed this way: “The world’s best basketball player. … Biggest challenge yet. … Kobe Bryant is the Black Mamba. … A Robert Rodriguez film.” So, a midseason “rivalry” game against the Clippers isn’t Kobe’s biggest challenge yet? We saw on the court Sunday that it obviously isn’t Pau Gasol’s either.

From Janis Carr, OC Register: For 24 minutes, the Lakers were in control of Sunday’s game against the Clippers. Clippers rookie sensation Blake Griffin had two points — a dunk in the first quarter. Guard Eric Gordon, the team’s leading scorer, had scored just 13 points and veteran Baron Davis had 10. The Lakers’ newly tweaked defense was in full swing as the Clippers had hit just 35 percent of their shots. Then came the third quarter and the Lakers defense went into hiding. For the next 12 minutes, Griffin tore up double teams, the Clippers boosted their shooting percentage to 45.5 percent, and Gordon went 4 for 6 from the field, including a 3-point shot at the buzzer that seemed to bring the Clippers back to life. After trailing by 12 points in the third quarter, the rejuvenated Clippers had closed the gap to 71-68 on Gordon’s buzzer-beater.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Off an inbounds pass, Clippers guard Eric Gordon hit a three-pointer off an inbounds pass just as the third quarter ended. Just like Shannon Brown’s 60-foot heave to end the third quarter proved to be the spark that led the Lakers to an 87-86 victory Dec. 8 over the Clippers, so to did Gordon’s third quarter carry a momentum swing into the final period. For all the problems the Lakers demonstrated in their previous matchup against the Clippers, they at least showed how veteran experience prevails in late-game plays. Those included Bryant jumpers, Artest steals and of course, Derek Fisher’s game-winner.

From Andy Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Before the game, I wondered if Kobe’s recently efficient roll could be slowed by Eric Gordon checking him. Even acknowledging Kobe’s three inches on the Clipper, that strength and overall defensive awareness struck me as containing the potential to make Kobe work. Well, as the saying goes, you can’t teach height, and Kobe made great use of his to launch shots. Often working against Gordon in isolation, Kobe wisely concentrated less on pushing the issue to get low position. Instead, his back typically faced Gordon just long enough to create space, then turn around and drain a J. Otherwise, the kid was worked in space while Kobe faced up or drove, and Kobe earned 13 trips to the line (not literally at all at Gordon’s expense).

From C.A. Clark, Silver Screen and Roll: How many times have we seen the Lakers play a game like this?  Jump out to an early lead, let the other team back in it, spend the whole game just slightly behind, and then make a strong 4th quarter push to seal the game …  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen it happen.  Except today, it was the Lakers who fought back from that early defecit, and the Lakers who saw the game slip away as their counterparts out executed them down the stretch in the 4th quarter.  My preview turned out to be more fitting than I could have guessed, as the Clippers truly pulled a role reversal on the defending champs.

From Jordan Heimer, Clippers Blog: I keep going back to that Blake Griffin locker room interview after the Miami game. “Teams can’t come in here and punk us,” he said. “Not by a long shot.” Sadly, I erased the game, and I’m worried I don’t have the quote exactly right – except for “punked.” I know he said “punked.” Blake is usually as reticent in his interviews as the next pro athlete, but punked caught my ear. He could have said “Good teams compete at home,” or “We always expect to win.” “Punked” connoted an acknowledgement how the rest of the league often regards the Clippers – as an automatic victory, half a day off… a team you could punk.

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

The inconsistency that has plagued the Lakers all season long reared its ugly head in today’s matinee affair against the upstart Clippers, resulting in a 99-92 loss to end the forum blue and gold’s seven-game winning streak. Going into today, much of the focus was on the NBA’s newest darling, Blake Griffin. Unfortunately, for the Lakers, it was his less heralded, but equally impressive teammate Eric Gordon who stole the show, scoring a game high 30 points on 13-20 shooting, including a bevy of clutch shots in the fourth quarter.

After Derek Fisher stole a game away from the Clips in the teams’ first meeting of the season, you knew that Griffin, Gordon and Co. were going to put up a fight. For more than two and a half quarters, the Lakers met their energy, with Kobe heating up early, Bynum proving why he too is one of the league’s most promising young big men and Odom energizing the second unit through the first eight minutes of the third quarter. That’s right around when things — mainly a 12-point lead — started to go awry for the Lakers, though, as the Clippers guards thoroughly dominated the fourth quarter. From Gordon’s brilliance, Baron Davis’ continued resurgence to even a Randy Foy sighting, the Lakers anemic defense down the stretch proved little match for the Clippers’ athleticism.

Give credit to L.A. for holding Griffin in check for most of the game, leading to an uncharacteristic 7-20 shooting day that ended Blake’s streak of 14 consecutive games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Even on an off day, the burly forward still wound up notching 18 points and 15 rebounds, finally asserting himself in the paint when it mattered most in the latter half of the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Clippers front line is two dimensional now with the rapid growth of center DeAndre Jordan, who was the perfect mop-up man all game long (eight points, 15 rebounds). Most games, the Lakers offer a similar two-pronged attack with Bynum and Gasol, but only one — Andrew (18 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks) — decided to show up in the second half of the game in what was probably his best effort since re-joining the starting lineup. I think you can assess blame to both the Lakers guards (Fisher, Brown and the still struggling Steve Blake) for going away from their big men in the final 16 minutes and also to Gasol, who had another one of the bizarre non-factor performances that have happened all too often after his hot start to the season.

Despite their offensive and defensive inefficiencies, this game was more than winnable had the Lakers executed with any decency in the fourth quarter. Down the stretch, it was the suddenly confident Clippers — not the Lakers — who played with the poise of an elite team. The box score tells part of the story here as the Lakers only tallied 12 assists to the Clippers 28. They also outrebounded the Lakers by a 50-45 margin, led by the Jordan/Griffin tandem. It was the latter player who was involved in a tussle with Lamar with 5.7 seconds to go in the game that resulted in ejections for Griffin, Davis, Odom and Artest. Looking at the replay, the entire sequence seemed pretty unnecessary, but these are things that happen when you’re a frustrated team on the verge of losing a game you should and could have won.

In many ways, this game reminded me of the early season game against the Nuggets (who the Lakers will face in Denver this week, by the way) that ended the season-opening eight-game winning streak; a 36-minute effort against an eager, more athletic team. There are several people — many who’ve commented on this site — who believe the team’s now dismissed seven-game winning streak was a mirage of sorts; a product of slightly improved play against still primarily mediocre to poor teams. With an inconsistent effort like today, it’s easy to see why. If the Clippers have proved anything over the course of the past month or so, it’s that their own play during the first month and a half of the season was similarly a mirage . They’re far from raising any trophies, but make no mistake about it, this is a team to be reckoned with in the second half of the season. Ultimately, it’s also a team the Lakers should be able to beat, knowing full-well that one of the league’s easiest schedules promptly ends with tomorrow night’s showdown against the third-seeded Thunder and games against Dallas, Denver and Utah looming.