Well, that almost went just as we’d planned. Admit it – you were ready to watch the Lakers get blown out of the Chesapeake Energy Arena tonight. Playing without Steve Nash AND Pau Gasol, how could they possibly survive the young, hot-shooting Oklahoma City Thunder? How much more would Kobe Bryant have to undertake when his teammates continue to fall by the wayside due to injury? As has been the case with this Lakers team this season, there have been more questions than answers, but until they are a complete, active roster, it’s a difficult team to evaluate.
The Lakers did, in fact survive tonight, and despite how bleak their chances looked when they fell behind by as much as 19 points, they only lost by six points after a surge late in the final quarter. No – there are no moral victories here. You either mark a team’s game as a WIN or a LOSS, but similar to the loss against the San Antonio Spurs (which feels ages ago), there were encouraging signs for a team whose record is anything but.
The Big Two – Kevin Durant and Russell Westbook had the lion’s share of OKC’s final score (69 out of 114 points), but Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard didn’t do so shabby either. Bryant and Howard combined for 58 points of the Lakers’ 108. After hitting the 30,000 point milestone, Bryant is 35 points closer to that fourth spot on the NBA All-Time Scoring list. He shot 11-24 from the field, 4-5 from downtown and hit nine of his 10 free throws. He added seven assists, three steals and even a pair of blocks.
In the battle of the bigs, Kendrick Perkins doesn’t hold a candle to Howard. He collected nothing but a donut in the points column, grabbed three rebounds, handed out two assists and used five of his fouls. Howard reigned in 23 points on 9-17 from the field, 18 rebounds, a trio of dimes and a block. Bryant and Howard committed a combined 11 turnovers, however, but that was their worst stat of the night.
Jodie Meeks – He’s a three-point shooter by nature, no doubt, but Meeks, since Mike D’Antoni was hired, has been a slow progression of good things coming. Tonight he had 17 points on 4-8 from the field (2-3 from downtown of course), but he also got to the free throw line eight times and hit seven of them. He grabbed five rebounds through the course of his almost-20 minutes on the floor , took two steals and played some defense.
Chris Duhon – As another player who was buried at the end of Mike Brown’s bench, we may not seen much of Duhon had D’Antoni not been hired and had Steve Blake not been injured, but he has done a solid job filling in. Lest anyone forget, he’s a 9-year veteran, well-versed in D’Antoni’s offense and he’s done an admirable job holding down the point-guard position, and not just by dribbling back and forth. Duhon had 14 points tonight on 5-8 from the field, 4-7 from behind the arc, including one that brought the Lakers within striking distance late in the game.
41-Point OKC Second Quarter – The Lakers outscored the Thunder in the first and fourth quarters and tied them in the third. But getting outscored 41-26 in the second quarter? That was surely going to haunt them as the game progressed unless they shot lights out or OKC stopped scoring. The Lakers had a six-point lead at one point, but quicker than you can say “thunder,” they were suddenly down 10. That is how quickly this OKC team can score, and the Lakers didn’t seem prepared for it.
Antawn Jamison – After a string of relatively productive games, Jamison started quickly tonight, scoring seven points in the first quarter…but that was it. He scored only two more points between the end of the first quarter and the end of the game.
So close – In all of these losses, the questions that arise most are those nagging “what-ifs.” What if Steve Nash were running this team these last 20 games? What if Pau Gasol played tonight or a few days ago in Houston? What if Dwight Howard made at least half of the free throws he missed in those losses? What if the Lakers decided to shore up their defense in the second quarter rather than surging so late in the game? Could they have won tonight? There are positive answers to all these questions. Unfortunately, the Lakers don’t play in the land of what-if. They play in real time, unable to go back in time or move farther ahead into the future. They must take the good from each loss and build on them, and take the bad and figure out how to remedy them.
There’s been so much talk about the learning curve that the Lakers’ have had to undergo this season, that the rest of us, fans and analysts alike have ignored our own. We’re not used to the Lakers struggling as much as they have this season. This struggle to reach even .500 – we haven’t witnessed that in a long time. So as cliché as it sounds, patience is a virtue that everyone involved needs to practice. The Lakers lost to OKC, but they are without two of their primary players and they didn’t get blown out. It’s a thin silver lining, but a silver lining nonetheless. What this team has gone through in 20 games – another team may not be able to handle. They will figure it out. Who knows – they may get to .500 soon enough and then the new struggle to get above it can begin.