In the interests of full disclosure, yours truly had no expectation whatsoever of this being a remotely competitive game. The Lakers are currently struggling to adjust to a point guard-driven system with their two best floor generals sidelined and Pau Gasol out for good measure. That portended a brutal twenty point beatdown in which the Lakers would look especially feeble against an elite squad. For the thought of victory to be any more than the tiniest glimmer of hope, the Lakers would have had to play a perfect game and the Thunder, for their part, would have had to come with much less than that. This is also the type of opponent, moreover, that this Laker team has laid down and accepted brutal beatings from in the past rather than submit a full effort in what was shaping up to be an especially meaningless regular season contest given the depth of the Lakers' troubles and the injury situation.
And yet, the Lakers competed. Nay, they did much more than that. Before an absolutely epic scoring explosion from Russell Westbrook that was, dare we say it, Kobe Bryant-esque, the Lakers were more than in the game: they were leading and doing so by running Mike D'Antoni's offense more than adeptly. They found open shooters, dominated the offensive boards, and did a reasonably good job of deterring OKC's offensive punch before Westbrook went supernova. Almost more impressive than this, however, was the fight from the Lakers after they fell back by double digits. As previously mentioned, last year's Mike Brown-led team and even the one the year before that under Phil Jackson would have just let the effort wane and take a twenty point blasting.
That wasn't the case here, as the Lakers' role players found their shot and Kobe had a heroic performance from beginning to end to try to salvage something out of the night. Indeed, they were reasonably close enough within the final five minutes that a bunch of threes would have broken the dam down and made it an actual contest. The downsides of Kobe hero ball reared their ugly head, as even though it was the very thing that helped the Lakers back from the brink, it left them with too many empty possessions to finish their comeback. In that scenario, anyone really think that the offensive consistency brought by Steve Nash doesn't mean anything? That a more wholesome offensive attack would have meant something in a game in which the Lakers only shot 42.9% against a squad that is a good defensive team but hardly a juggernaut on that end? The final chapter on the Lakers has certainly not been written already; this is the prelude before some key protagonists come back into the fold to make the story much more interesting.
- Kobe Bryant -- Give Kobe a lot of credit: he brought it on both ends tonight for the first time in a long while, even if his defensive performance manifested in a lot of gambling. Three steals and two blocks attest to his activity and he was a big part of why the Lakers' offense kept on humming despite the scoring downpour from OKC. Whenever the Lakers would appear to be slipping away, he would nail a three or attack the rim and get to the line to silence a boisterous road crowd. He ended up with 35 points on a very respectable 61.6 TS% while still adding in seven dimes, all signs of a pretty stellar night offensively. More than anything, the burst he demonstrated against Thabo Sefolosha, a defender who has done a solid job against him in the past, was especially endearing. The Kobe of last year didn't have the jets to take Sefolosha off the dribble and go straight to the rim, where Kobe earned a good portion of his free throws. Yet time and time again, Kobe made the OKC defense break down through his dribble penetration and this effect will only be amplified when Nash returns and forces OKC to honor another player on the perimeter.
- Jodie Meeks -- If you wanted any more indication that Meeks is becoming a key part of the Lakers' rotation, observe the Kobe/Meeks backcourt that D'Antoni went with down the stretch, not only a sign of the fact the Lakers are playing with their third and fourth point guards, but of his confidence in Meeks' play. This game was the only one in recent memory in which Meeks actually had success driving at the rim down the stretch, although OKC's defense might have allowed it in lieu of a more dangerous three-point attempt, but the mere fact that he was successful twice (!) on dribble drive attempts was shocking. This notwithstanding, one would hope he stays rooted to the perimeter unless he really has a wide open lane to the rim. In any case, Meeks' heady play, done in the absence of the player we expected to benefit him the most prior to the season in Nash, has to be encouraging and having a competent third wing is something the Lakers haven't had since Shannon Brown.
- Dwight Howard -- Dwight spent most of the game disproving the theory that Kendrick Perkins has any real hope of stopping him on the interior, as he nailed hook shot after hook shot on the block, and dominated the boards on both ends. He also stepped up to the plate in terms of his free throws and while the deficit was never small enough for Scott Brooks to think about a Hack-a-Howard strategy, Dwight was hitting them well enough to render it ineffective either way. There were also quite a few possessions in which Dwight was trying too hard to be a playmaker via interior passes, although such a sentiment will be more appreciated when Pau is his partner in the interior. In general, however, whenever Dwight is within a certain radius of the rim, it should be an automatic dunk attempt. While his current conditioning likely doesn't allow for that, it should be a sentiment he carries all the time.
- Chris Duhon -- After a first half during which he was flambeed by Westbrook, Duhon recovered quite well in the second as Westbrook cooled off and Duhon hit a series of threes to keep the Lakers in the game. We will bring up this point again and again: Duhon was our fourth point guard going into the season and for him to be offering any set of positives on the court is huge. His spot in the rotation is often for players there for "locker room presence" (cough) Derek Fisher (cough) than any real production, and in spite of this, he put up a very respectable 14/3/3 line. There was really nothing he could have done to stop Westbrook in the first half on his part other than knocking him out as cold as Marquez did to Pacquiao last night.
- Honorable mention goes to Jordan Hill, whose activity seems to be finally garnering him more time in D'Antoni's rotation. On a night in which Dwight would be expected to play forty minutes and more, Hill still got on the floor at the four at the expense of Jamison, D'Antoni's preferred option at the spot for his spacing, and he did a decent job on the boards and on defense. Aside from Howard, Hill is by far the team's best weak side defender and his athleticism manifests here in particular. This wasn't quite on the same level as his breakout performance against OKC last season, but he acquitted himself well. Minutes will again become tight when Pau comes back, but one hopes that D'Antoni still carves out a significant role for Hill, as he has deserved it.
- Devin Ebanks -- Other than a pair of nice passes to Hill, including a perfect one on the pick-and-roll as Hill rolled to the rim, Ebanks was awful all night and looked nothing like the player who was actually giving Kevin Durant a hard time in the aforementioned game against OKC last regular season. He had a number of disastrous drives at the rim end in turnovers, was ineffective as a floor spacer, and in general, looked like he was pressing too hard for his lost rotation minutes. This is year three for Ebanks: the excuses about his youth and development start to wear thin at this point as we start to wonder what future he has on the team. If he's not capable of being a fourth wing in this rotation, then there is very little reason to keep holding onto him and hoping he turns into one. He essentially has from now until December 15, when signed free agents become able to be traded, to turn the ship around on his career.
- Antawn Jamison -- Jamison finally had a bad shooting night after shooting 50% or better in nearly all of his contests since joining the regular rotation and this especially hurt since he was a poor matchup for the infinitely more athletic Serge Ibaka on the defensive boards. This was supposed to be a game in which Jamison's ability to bring Ibaka out to the three-point line would force OKC into tough decisions defensively and while it did to a certain extent, Jamison missed all of his threes and only got his points at the rim. As with Meeks, however, Jamison's production in D'Antoni's system despite the central playmaker in Nash being absent is a significant positive, and the notion that he will presumably return to the bench once Pau returns to give the Lakers three solid bench reserves in Meeks, Hill, and himself adds to that sentiment.
- Darius Morris -- Morris wasn't that bad in the few minutes in which he got on the court, as he played decent defense on Westbrook and earned a pair of dimes, but his indecision on offense is still present and it severely stymies the Lakers' offensive attack. A key tenet of D'Antoni's system is that you don't necessarily have to run, but you should get into your sets quickly and maximize your opportunity of finding the best shot available on the floor. Needless to say, Morris' tendency to pound the ball pointlessly is not conducive to this and it is only further compounded by the fact that he does precious little on the pick-and-roll, whether it is to attack the rim or dish to another teammate. He almost gives the impression that he believes he is still in college, where such proclivities would be more tolerated -- and is a big reason why nearly all college basketball games are borderline unwatchable for yours truly.
- (Dis)honorable mention to Metta World Peace, who got smoked by Durant on the defensive end, although to be fair to Metta, it's pretty hard for just about anyone to stop Durant as he is right now. Add a lot of refinement and skill onto his physical gifts and Durant is far from the player that MWP frustrated in 2010 en route to the Lakers' championship that year. The main quibble against MWP comes at the offensive end, as he's been in a bit of a slump lately. His long range shooting isn't hitting the mark all the time and the endlessly entertaining yet horrifying spectacle of him driving to the rim or posting up is not yielding the same kind of results it did earlier in the year. This might be a poor game to pick apart his offensive performance given who he had to check on the other end, but it would be nice for MWP to offer another source of perimeter scoring, especially so long as Nash is out.