Tonight, we saw one contender, and one team that is scratching and clawing to try and be one but simply isn’t there right now. The result was a 100-85 loss by the Lakers in a game that saw them hold their own for as long as they could before finally succumbing to the speed, athleticism, and overall talent of the best team in the Western conference.
In many ways, there’s no shame in what occurred in this contest. The Thunder, even though they’re banged up, are clearly the better team. Their defense is one that utilizes rugged, long, and shot-blocking big men flanked by fleet, long, and rangy perimeter players. This combination led to tough sledding any time a Laker found himself with a shot in the paint, as shot blockers stood tall and jumped high to contest shots from every angle. It also meant every time the Lakers swung the ball around the perimeter, the quickness and length of the Thunder wings enabled them to rotate, run people off their preferred shots, or contest the ones that were taken. The end result was a 38.5% shooting night from the Lakers, including a 7-24 night from Kobe and a 5-15 night from Bynum.
The Thunder, meanwhile, did what they do on offense to every opponent they face. They put the ball in the hands of their three playmakers and told them to either go get their own shot or create a look for a teammate. Russell Westbrook only hit 6 of his 17 attempts from the field, but his aggression kept the Lakers’ defense on its heels all night. He attacked off the bounce like he was shot out of a cannon and either got all the way to the rim to earn FT attempts or stopped on a dime to shoot his ever improving pull-up jumper. When he wasn’t working in isolation, he used the P&R to collapse the Laker defense and free up Serge Ibaka for several makeable mid-range jumpers.
And when Russ wasn’t attacking, Kevin Durant was, flashing his efficiency and remarkable skill in the process. Though Ron was able to body Durant early in the game and disrupt his rhythm by crowding his dribble and forcing a few turnovers, it wasn’t nearly enough to knock him completely off track. Durant, not fazed by any defense these days, simply kept taking what the defense gave him and showing why he’s one of, if not the most gifted scorers in the league. When he couldn’t get into the paint, he’d rain a step back jumper. When he did get a step on his man but found a big contesting, he’d scoop up a shot under the arm of the shot blocker or flip up a floater before the big could fully step up. There are certainly many capable scorers in the game today (Kobe, LeBron, Carmelo, to name a few) but there isn’t a more natural bucket getter than the young Thunder forward. He’d finish the night with a game high 33 points on 12-22 shooting and most of it looked effortless.
And then, of course, there was OKC’s super sub James Harden. The beard would pour in 16 points on only 10 shots, using his natural understanding of pace and angles to find cracks in the Laker D and worm his way to the basket. As mentioned in the game preview (and by David Thorpe countless times), Harden reminds us of Manu Ginobili the way he can hurt an opponent off the bounce and with his jumper, and tonight the Lakers saw the evidence first hand.
As much as OKC deserves their praise – and this win – the Lakers shouldn’t be buried here. For the better part of two and half quarters, the Lakers held tight in this game despite the troubles of Kobe and Bynum. This team battled defensively, worked the glass, and hit timely shots to hang tough. The Thunder are such an explosive team, but the Lakers did well to close down the paint and contest every jumper, making it quite difficult for OKC to find that comfort zone that they so often tap early into early when playing at home. On an individual level, Pau Gasol continued his strong play of late by scoring 22 points on only 14 shots while chipping in 9 rebounds and 3 assists. He took, and knocked down, the open jumpers that were there for him and also did some good work in the post (though he was clearly more effective shooting his elbow jumper). Ron also had a decent night offensively, hitting three 3-pointers for his 9 points on the night while also playing strong D (even though, as mentioned earlier, Durant was still able to hit some amazing shots).
Outside of those two, however, the only other Laker to hit even half his shots was Steve Blake (3-5 for 8 points) and that simply will not get it done. Not against a Thunder team that’s only lost one game at home; not against the team that’s the class of the conference. This contest showed that the Lakers don’t have the horses to keep pace with this team right now and while that’s not necessarily a surprise, it does crystallize their position at this time. The Lakers ultimately tired as a team and couldn’t keep pace with a young and athletic Thunder team that looked like they could have played 20 more minutes if they had to (and this, just as it was for the Lakers, was on the 2nd night of a back to back).
What this game also showed me, though, is that the Lakers need a rest. The first half of this season has been a grueling test of physical resolve for all teams, but that’s especially been the case for the Lakers. Their Big Three log heavy minutes and Kobe, especially, has looked gassed these last two contests — shooting flat jumpers and showing little explosiveness when working off the dribble. In addition, this has been a mentally taxing campaign. From learning new schemes on the fly, to the trade rumors, to the statements to and from the front office, the Lakers have spent as much mental currency as physical up to this point of the season. And while they’ve done a very good job of compartmentalizing and in some cases even using the drama to fuel them forward, a break is welcome.
So now, while this loss may fester for a day or two, it’s time to recharge. Yes, Kobe and Andrew are going to Orlando for the all-star festivities, but they all get to step away for a few days. And while there still may be change on the horizon, that stuff can wait until next week and into the middle of next month.