This is a trait that every championship team needs and the Lakers seem to have found their storage supply since coming back from the all-star break. After coming back from a big deficit in Portland earlier in the week, the Lakers again tapped into their reserves and held on against the Thunder and win 90-87 to claim their 2nd straight tough road win and their 4th straight overall.
Really, this was an uphill climb all the way. The Lakers found themselves down 6-0 early and never seemed to feel comfortable against the Thunder. Whether it was Thabo Sefolosha making open jumpers (he made his first 2 threes and had eight early points for OKC) or Russ Westbrook nailing his mid-range J (as Kobe gave him the Rondo treatment), OKC seemed to be on their game and it ensured that the Lakers would have to battle the entire game if they hoped to win this game.
And battle they did.
As the game went on, Kobe couldn’t seem to buy a jumpshot but his mates were picking him up along the way. In the first period it was Gasol raining jumpers, continuing his great rhythm from Friday’s game vs. the Clippers. A tough fading J from the left wing was followed by another from the right side. After that he got a lay up and then knocked down two more jumpers before the 1st quarter buzzer sounded. Those 10 points and some solid work by Bynum to earn trips to the foul line and get inside buckets off good positioning and offensive rebounds also helped the Lakers keep pace with OKC in the first frame where LA would trail by 6.
In the 2nd quarter, it was the bench’s turn to show their worth and as usual it was a combination of Odom and Brown that spearheaded the Lakers’ attack. As I mentioned in the game preview, Lamar would have a distinct advantage against the Thunder’s reserve bigs now that Serge Ibaka has become a starter. And LO sure did take advantage of his time being guarded by Nick Collison. Surely concerned that LO would use his quickness to get to the rim, Collison sagged off LO and allowed him the space he wanted to shoot his jumper. These uncontested shots keyed the Lakers’ quest for points as Odom’s back to back jumpers (the first a two pointer from the right wing and his second a three from straight away) had the dual effect of stopping a run that OKC was on and settling the Lakers down. After Odom’s mini 5 point run, Shannon performed the same feat getting a lay in and a three pointer of his own to fall. After Odom followed that up with a another lay in, the Lakers had successfully weathered another storm and found themselves within striking distance. At the half they’d only trail by 5 even though OKC had played well enough to be up double that amount.
What was a first half of jockeying for points and ensuring that the Thunder didn’t get too far ahead developed into a defensive slugfest in the 2nd half. And here is where the Lakers really started to impose their will on the game. Ron Artest continued to put the clamps on Kevin Durant and barely allowed him any space to breathe on that side of the ball. Ron fought diligently through every screen and contested each and every shot as best he could. By the end of the game Durant had a line of 21 points on 8-20 shooting and only attempted 6 FT’s When you add in 5 turnovers, it’s easy to understand the importance that Ron had in this game as KD never truly found a groove.
Besides making things hard for Durant, the Lakers also tightened up the defense on Westbrook. After hurting the Lakers by getting to his spots and knocking down his mid-range jumper in the first half, LA made it a point of emphasis to deny Russ his angles and contest his shots whenever possible. And while Kobe did a good job of funneling Russ to specific spots on the floor and not giving up easy looks, holding Westbrook down really was a team effort. Every time he drove the Lakers bigs were there to contest his shot and either alter it to force a miss or foul him to make him earn the points at the line. When Russ tried to use the P&R to get free, the Lakers flattened out their angles so he couldn’t split the hedge man (as he did in the 1st half) and kept him in front of them on nearly every possession he went to that action. The Lakers were so successful with these tactics that Russ didn’t score the entire third period which allowed the Lakers to hold OKC to a 13 point quarter. Meanwhile the Lakers kept their offense going well enough to put up 21 points in the 3rd and were able to turn a 5 point halftime deficit into a 3 point lead going into the final frame. (This is where I must also give Bynum credit as he was a key player in ensuring that OKC’s sets weren’t successful. Big Drew showed well on screens but still protected the paint and recovered to rebound. Whether on the P&R or hedging out to help on Durant coming off pin downs, Drew showed great instincts on when to show out and when to lay back. Without his presence I think the Thunder’s offense doesn’t struggle nearly as much and they likely build some momentum going into the 4th. Instead, they trailed and had to play uphill the rest of the game.)
In the 4th quarter, the Lakers offered more of the same on the defensive end and made every OKC offensive possession a tough one. Rarely did a Thunder shot get put up without a Laker close enough to make a presence felt and most times the Lakers secured the miss with a defensive rebound. With OKC struggling to score the Lakers were able to grind out offensive possessions and get enough baskets to build up a small cushion that the Thunder just couldn’t come back from. Sure Westbrook hit a big three to cut the Lakers’ lead to a single point but on the next possession Kobe hit a baseline jumper over the outstretched arm of Sefolosha to put LA back up by three. And while the Thunder had two good looks from 25 feet out to tie the game, neither fell and the Lakers escaped with a hard fought win.
In the end, a win in this game is all I could really ask for but the fact that the Lakers did so by clamping down on D (allowing only 31 second half points) and again showing some of that championship mettle only has me more encouraged moving forward. Sure the offense bogged down in the 4th quarter with non-movement of the ball and the players led to Kobe isolations on too many possessions. But to me, the bigger point wasn’t that the Lakers struggled to score but that they responded on the other end by getting the stops. Too many times this year offensive struggles have led to inconsistent effort on D and what were close games that could have been won turned out to be losses. This game, however, was the exact opposite. In the final 5 minutes of this game the Lakers got several key stops and forced 3 turnovers (2 steals and one drawn charge) to ultimately seal the game. A game like this reminds me so much of last season and considering how that year ended, that’s a pretty great feeling.