Another week of ups and downs, another game of sections. The Lakers played well for the first quarter and a half, and the Thunder played well from there. Derek Fisher returned, got love from the crowd and showed that he’s not quite ready for the scrap heat. Andrew Bynum showed that he can play fired up after his little episode the other night, and Scotty Brooks showed the art of cutting to the chase. In a sideline interview after the first quarter, he said “that was a bad 12 minutes. We have 36 minutes left to be good.”
Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’Lakers: It would have been nice for Bynum to face the media yesterday at practice following all the controversy surrounding Tuesday’s game in Golden State, answering questions himself rather than asking others to do it. Still, the best statement Bynum could make would be coming out Thursday, playing hard and playing well. For the most part, he did exactly that. From the jump, Bynum was a force on both sides of the ball, hitting four of his first seven shots, for eight points, while pulling down six rebounds. He had some great moments defensively, including one when he altered one shot attempt inside, then pogo-ed off the floor to block Serge Ibaka. In the second half, Bynum had a couple of turnovers, but his performance was more indicative of the team’s offensive shortcomings than his own. On a couple of occasions, he looked to pass out of double- and triple-teams down low but couldn’t find an outlet because his teammates weren’t moving. He finished with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds — a welcome change after five straight games in single digits — and blocked four shots. The Lakers had plenty of problems Thursday, but he wasn’t one of them. His effort was there tonight. Nobody should be going overboard giving him credit for playing hard, but given the reasonable questions about his maturity we’ve all been asking this week, it was still good to see.
C.A. Clark at Silver Screen and Roll: The Los Angeles Lakers fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder by a final score of 102-93 tonight, and there is some small comfort in losing a game in which there is no overwhelming story line. There were no shocking developments, no benched superstars. It was just a game in which Kobe Bryant didn’t play well, Pau Gasol didn’t play enough (due to foul trouble) and the team could not find an answer for Russell Westbrook in the 2nd half. Nothing strange, nothing even all that unpredictable. Oklahoma City is a very good team, and the Lakers are not good enough to beat the Thunder unless they play well. They didn’t, and so they lost. It’s almost beautiful in its simplicity. Almost. The game started off well enough. With the Laker offense firing on all cylinders and picking up offensive rebounds at will, the Lakers built up a big lead as both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook starrted the game slowly. The Laker lead was 12 at the end of the first quarter, and the team looked locked in as they so often seem to be against top notch competition. But the Thunder started chipping away at the lead immediately, and an 11-0 run to start the second half put the Thunder ahead for good, as Russell Westbrook started nailing mid-range jumpers and attacking the rim for easy layups. Westbrook ended up with 36 points on the evening. For those of you scoring at home, no, Ramon Sessions is no more effective on Westbrook than anybody else in a Laker uniform has been over the years.
Dave McMenamin & Justin Verrier for ESPN, and the Associated Press: Derek Fisher received a standing ovation before tipoff as highlights of his Lakers career played on the video board, along with a “Thanks for all you’ve done” message. He stood in his warm-ups and waved to the fans, then applauded them back after being hugged by some of his new teammates, who delivered a 102-93 victory. “We definitely want to come in and get this win for him,.” Russell Westbrook said. Fans got on their feet again when Fisher entered the game with 2:04 remaining in the first quarter. One held up an “I Miss D-Fish” sign. “The love and support and appreciation they’ve shown me over the years far exceeded anything I could’ve imagined when I first moved here in 1996,” said Fisher, who finished with seven points in nearly 16 minutes. After the game, Kobe Bryant addressed Fisher’s return, which was his 12th career game against the Lakers. “I think him coming back for a second stint with us and the championships that we won, it makes it a little bit more special than him coming back with the previous teams,” Bryant said. Bryant and Fisher won five NBA championships together in Fisher’s two stints with the Lakers, which were separated by stops in Utah and Golden State. Bryant added that he didn’t watch the video tribute. “I didn’t want to watch it. I didn’t want to look at it,” he said. Fisher discounted the notion he was traded because he would be unable to handle a bench role with the Lakers. “That goes against and flies in the face of not just what I’ve been since I’ve been in the NBA, but the type of team player I’ve been in every group I’ve ever been a part of,” Fisher said. “Team sports raised me in a sense. Besides my mom and dad and my family, I was raised on team sports and that meant and has always stood for sharing, sacrificing, giving of yourself so that the group can succeed. So, that’s what I’m explicitly focusing on doing for the Thunder now, and I’m looking forward to finishing out this regular season and really trying to help a team that was great before I even showed up.”
And then there’s this – nothing to do with the Lakers, but it’s a great piece by Danny Chau.
Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: I miss Andrei Kirilenko. Somehow, he slipped away without us being able to give him a proper farewell for the decade he spent in the NBA. With the lockout and our scrambling to adjust our rituals, schedules, and expectations once the season was green-lighted, Kirilenko slipped through the cracks—like he did so often on both ends of the floor. He’s in Russia now, a place he had pined for in the last four years of his NBA career. He’s with his once-former team, CSKA Moscow, leading them to a successful season in Euroleague. In Russia, he is free to be the player he’s always been, but was only able to show a glimmer NBA: a creative force on offense and defense. While never the most fluid or graceful player, Kirilenko’s most devastating talent was his impeccable timing in every facet of his game. At 6’9”, he saw the floor better than most point guards, and made bullet passes in stationary positions and in motion that slipped through traffic. But his most notable brilliance was on defense, and not just in shot-blocking. In a 2008 Sports Illustrated article, Chris Mannix articulates the impossibility of Kirilenko’s defense:
With Utah clinging to a late four-point lead against Milwaukee, Kirilenko poked the ball away from Bucks point guard Ramon Sessions and took it the length of the court for a game-sealing dunk. What was special about that steal—his fifth of the night—was that it came during a dribble handoff. As Sessions gave the ball to Richard Jefferson, Kirilenko slid his arm between the two and knocked the ball free. “Did he just do that?” marveled a scout watching the game. “He’s Rope Man. He can get those arms in the smallest of spaces.
There is something religious about the franchise player model that most teams subscribe to, placing all hope and faith on one man to lead a team to victory. Not to say that a nightly collective effort is altogether agnostic, but the factors that contribute to success are more complex. There is little room for error. But that isn’t why this season’s Utah Jazz are important. They exist at the fringe of popular discourse—just outside of the clutch debate, the closer arguments, and thoughts of MVP and Finals candidates. The Jazz offer some semblance of purity, however fleeting. They are a collection of good, not great, talents playing stellar basketball as of late. Their play displaces some of the noise, some of the clutter. We thought we found utopia last season in Denver. Perhaps utopia exists further west.
The weekend’s here, and the Lakers have a lot of basketball in front of them. They face the Hornets tomorrow and the Warriors on Sunday, as the last month of the regular season arrives. It hasn’t been a smooth ride, but there’s been progress. And after last night’s defeat, an obvious reminder – there is still ample room for improvenent. What comes next? What does this team have to do to prepare for the playoffs? Comment away.
– Dave Murphy