Lakers 106, Thunder 120: Caught In A Downdraft

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 10: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers is defended by Nick Collison #4 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second half at Staples Center on April 10, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. The Thunder defeated the Lakers 120-106. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Honestly, I'm not even sure how to interpret these losses anymore. The Lakers' losing streak, which hit five games tonight, began with an easy-to-foresee letdown against Denver, progressed into some classic "It's April and the champs are bored" contests, but now has passed into a new, more disturbing phase. From where I was sitting, it sure didn't look like the Lakers mailed this one in. Against a top-flight opponent in front of a lively home crowd in a game with real consequences for playoff seeding, they competed with an appropriate level of effort. Some of the issues that have plagued them this past week - turnovers, disastrous three-point shooting - were mostly or completely cleaned up. Yet the improvement didn't translate into a positive result because the Oklahoma City Thunder were faster, smarter and for the first time in ages shot the ball well at Staples Center.

The Thunder had lost 11 straight to the Lakers at Staples. Historically they've had difficulty scoring against the champs thanks to Ron Artest's bullying defense on Kevin Durant and the failure of OKC's role players to hit shots when left open. Tonight they successfully broke the pattern. Artest's defense was strong again, but Durant handled it better than he ever has, using his quick release to get jumpers off before Ron could body him up. Though he committed five turnovers, KD scored 31 points on just 18 shots (including free-throw possessions) to give the Thunder attack some much-needed edge.

Fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook had bursts of excellence and finished with 26 points. But what really did the Lakers in was the stout play of the OKC supporting cast. Guys like Thabo Sefolosha, Eric Maynor and Daequan Cook - the secondary perimeter dudes who've rarely stepped up against the Lakers - came through large tonight by converting their open looks. The Thunder as a team were incredibly sharp on offense, frequently catching the Lakers on back cuts and slow rotations, and as a result they piled up 120 points overall and 1.32 points per possession, the latter a season high for a Laker opponent.

A defensive meltdown on such an epic scale will be mixed into the easy-bake narrative about the Lakers being lazy or running out the clock on the regular season. This strikes me as unconvincing. The Laker defense has been just fine lately. They've been playing well on that end but struggling to maintain a supply chain for their own pointage. Tonight they just ran into an opponent that had a strong offensive gameplan (involving near-constant screening on and off the ball and lots of reversal to the weak side), the athleticism to stress and sew confusion in a defensive scheme and shooters who were on target. To keep the Thunder's point total at a manageable level, the Lakers would've had to bring their A game on defense tonight. Instead they brought maybe their B-minus game and thus wasted a fine offensive performance of their own.

Despite the presence of Kendrick Perkins, whom the Lakers saw for the first time since his trade from Boston, the champs did plenty of damage against the OKC defense. Kobe worked over Sefolosha for 31 points on 23 shots. Pau Gasol (26 points on 18 shots) was productive and efficient inside and out, showing a nice mix of creative moves. And Steve Blake (9 points on three shots) snapped out of his shooting slump for one night at least. As a team the Lakers scored 1.18 points per trip, and if you'd told me that before the game, I'd have been very, very confident in their chances.

What they really could've used, though, is better work on the offensive glass. Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum combined for just four offensive rebounds in 96 minutes played. Also, the bench continues to suck out loud. Matt Barnes is struggling, and Shannon Brown is just a mess right now at both ends of the floor. Phil Jackson needs to get those guys straightened out. Oh, and the endgame offense was laughably inept, but that's nothing new. After committing only one turnover through three quarters, the Lakers committed nine in the final period. Grrrrr! >:(

Let's review where the Lakers stand in terms of playoff seeding:

  • They're still in second place in the West, but only by virtue of their tiebreaker over the Mavericks, who have an identical 55-25 record. The Thunder are a game back at 54-25, but the Lakers hold the tiebreaker over them as well. These three teams could finish two-three-four in any order. The Lakers have the inside track to finish second, but they'll need to win at least one more game and maybe two.
  • The Miami Heat have passed the Lakers in the standings and own the tiebreaker, so unless they lose to the Hawks tomorrow and the Raptors Wednesday, they'll have home-court advantage in a Finals matchup between the teams.
  • The Celtics are tied with the Lakers at 55-25, but the Lakers hold that tiebreaker. The Celts' final two games are at Washington and at home against the Knicks. If they win both, the Lakers would need to win their final two games as well to keep HCA in a hypothetical Finals matchup.

The Lakers have stumbled into a position where they'll probably need to win two road playoff series and might need to win a third. It'll be a nifty trick if they can pull it off. For better or worse, we won't have to wait long to find out.











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