“I love everything about those kids,” Kobe Bryant said of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. “They work extremely hard, they’re all about winning and they’re not afraid.”
Hard-working, hungry for victory and fearless – sounds like someone we know. And with just a quarter left in the regular season, Bryant is aware that in order to get to the top of the mountain again, he can’t be the only one on this defending championship team with a relentless drive for greatness. Maybe it took a short break during the All-Star weekend to put it all together. Maybe with the bulk of the regular season behind them, the Lakers are finally ready to sprint the final leg to the playoffs. The means to that end will not be an easy one, but based on this latest four-game winning streak, this team looks more than just alive. They are actually kicking.
The last time the Lakers were in Oklahoma City, they had just eliminated the Thunder in that challenging first-round of last season’s playoffs. But before that visit, they were trounced in Games 3 and 4 by the young team and, let’s face it, their uber supportive home crowd. With OKC beefing up their roster with the addition of Kendrick Perkins, they have a chance to finally compete with the Lakers’ size, and today’s game proved just how much they need it.
Andrew Bynum, a concern shortly before the All-Star break due to some lingering discomfort in his surgically repaired knee, just showed today that he’s doing okay. 16 points on 5-7, 6-8 from the free throw line, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal, 5 blocks and ONE FOUL? Bynum is actually more than okay and slowly but surely since his return from injury, he’s proven that he is more than just a big body; he’s a big body…with skills. He called for the ball all afternoon and headed to the rack to finish and was rewarded each time, either with a high percentage shot or free throws. On the other end, his 7-10 boards prevented second chance points by OKC and the five blocks more than just saved the Lakers 10 Thunder points. It served as a reminder to the Thunder of exactly why they traded away their good friend, Jeff Green. Desperate times, desperate measures.
Bynum’s running mate, Pau Gasol was another such reminder. He had 13 points in the first half en route to his 18 for the game on 7-13. He also had 11 rebounds. In the last few games, teams have been trying in vain to keep Gasol out of the paint, but what does he do when he’s fenced off that area? He makes them suffer with his mid-range jumpers and pull-ups instead. Gasol’s offensive arsenal may not be as vast as Kobe Bryant’s (whose is?!), and he doesn’t dominate with brute force like Bynum, but the man can shoot with either his left or right, can score from as far as 20 feet and he’s as intelligent as they come.
Kobe Bryant worked himself up to #7 on the NBA all-time scoring list today, and despite an off shooting night, he managed to do other things, like play facilitator. He was met with double teams often, and in those situations, he passed to depending teammates like Pau Gasol, whose jumpers hit nothing but twine; Shannon Brown, who had stolen the ball from Durant then threw it to Bryant who gave it back to him for a fastbreak dunk; Steve Blake, who brought down a defensive board and quickly ran to plant himself in the corner just in time for Bryant to send him back the rock for a long two.
This game started out to be all about offense, with the Lakers allowing the Thunder to shoot 61% in the first two quarters. In the second half, however, it was all D, as in DEFENSE. OKC did their job on Kobe Bryant. Thabo Sefalosha and James Hardern were each up to the task and Bryant went 8-22 because of their efforts. But their defense couldn’t stop Mamba when it matters most to the 2-time finals MVP – crunch time. With just over four minutes left in the game, Bryant hit a three over a clearly sleeping Daequan Cook to give the Lakers their largest lead of the game, 87-80. Then in the closing seconds, he hit a tough fadeaway over Sefalosha.
For the Lakers, the second half was a 180 over their defensive deficiencies in the first. Russell Westbrook had 17 points on 7-10 in the first half but went only 1-6 the rest of the way. Kevin Durant was just 8-20 for his 21 points, but it wasn’t just Ron Artest who contributed to his off shooting game. Checking a scorer like Durant takes a concerted effort, and the Lakers worked together on it today. Artest received the bulk of his minutes on the floor, but Gasol and Bynum got their turn when Durant got in the paint and even Bryant stuck himself to the young forward around the perimeter. After scoring 56 first-half points, the Lakers allowed OKC to score just 31 in the second (only13 in the third quarter!) and forced them into 19 turnovers. In the end, it was the Lakers making defensive stances to win the game; Pau Gasol taking a charge and then Ron Artest tipping the ball out of Kevin Durant’s hands just as he received a pass.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are an exciting young team. They absolutely entice basketball fans with their athleticism and sheer speed. But what they are missing is some veteran savvy, which overflow out of this Lakers team. Youth may not be on the side of these defending champs, but that experience thing sure helps sometimes.
Pre-game Thoughts: Kendrick Perkins won’t be available to play in a couple of weeks, and who knows if Nate Robinson will see any time on the floor, but these OKC kids are still a tough team. They’ve lost two in a row and are looking to their home crowd to help get them past the defending champs. Laker bigs will need to step up today. Until Perkins is activated, the Thunder still don’t have enough to pit against the likes of Bynum, Gasol and Odom.
Half-time Thoughts: 51-56 – The Lakers got behind by as much as 14 points in the second quarter, but an 18-4 run helped them tie the game. Unfortunately, they still allowed the Thunder to shoot 61% for the half. The visitors need to tighten up their defense because the likes of Russell Westbrook, who leads all scores with 17 points, is getting everything he wants at the rim. A positive note for the Lakers is the 30 points by the bigs, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. They are 12-20, while the rest of the team is 10-22. Aside from some improved defense, the Lakers need to continue taking advantage of their length on offense.
Most Thoughtless Play(s)/Player(s) of the Game: This isn’t so much a thoughtless item as it is a funny musing. Luke Walton played almost six minutes, no field goal attempts, no rebounds, no assists, no fouls- not a single stat, but he was a +2 for the game. How’s THAT for getting something with nothing?
Most Thought-filled Play(s)/Player(s) of the Game: The Laker bigs delivered today, combining for 43 points, 28 rebounds and Andrew Bynum led the game with five blocks. THAT is how this team wins games!