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.
As previously mentioned, Kobe Bryant's evening was a struggle. Matched up against an extremely long defender in Thabo Sefolosha, Kobe shot just 7-25 from the floor, scoring 23 points. His two assists were too low, but he did manage not to turn the ball over and also picked up nine boards. Andrew Bynum bounced back nicely from Tuesday's idiocy with 25 points and 13 boards (his first double digit rebounding effort in over a week). He turned the ball over four times, but he also had four blocks and seemed active and engaged throughout. As for Pau Gasol, his 13-6 line looks pretty pedestrian, but he was on the short end of three quick fouls in the 3rd quarter which made for a short evening for him, and a tall mountain to climb for his team. Faced with the prospect of 8 or so additional minutes for one of the Lakers' ineffective back up big men, victory was never going to be in the cards.
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 started 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.
Speaking of Sessions, he did not have his finest game as a Los Angeles Laker. Let's talk about why. Sessions had 5 turnovers on the evening to go along with his 5 assists. He only scored seven points, because he only took six shots. So basically, it wasn't so much that Sessions played poorly (although the turnovers were unseemly), but that he wasn't particularly involved in the offense. Kobe took a lot of shots, Bynum took a fair number of shots too, and between the two of them, there just isn't much ball left over for Sessions to do what it is he is capable of doing. Because, you know, he never played a single second without both Bynum and Bryant also on the court.
I've been banging on this drum since the second Ramon Sessions stepped onto the court in a Laker uniform, so I can't stop now ... in order to maximize his talents and what he can bring to the table, Sessions has to play minutes where he is the primary playmaker. Those minutes are far more likely to occur without Kobe and Bynum using possessions as they see fit. Look, I've given up on the concept of Sessions not starting. He's too good, and Steve Blake is too poor, for the rotational convenience to be worthwhile. But it's not that difficult to build a rotation predicated on making sure, at the very least, that any time Bryant isn't on the court, Sessions is. Running in a Bryant free lineup gives Sessions free reign to take over the offense 100% and create easy shots for himself and others.
Instead, Session missed every second of action that Kobe didn't participate in. The Lakers trotted out the same Kobe-less, Sessions-less, Bynum-less lineup twice tonight, at the start of the 2nd and 4th quarters. Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Metta World Peace and Josh McRoberts joined Pau Gasol for 4+ minutes in the 1st half and just under 3 minutes in the 2nd half. In those seven total minutes, the lineup was -11. The Lakers lost by 9. This isn't rocket science. The Lakers bench is not very effective, and playing with a guy like Sessions, who is capable of making a bench player's life so much easier by providing easier opportunities sure as hell seems like a no-brainer to me. Start Sessions all you want, but at least make sure some of his minutes come at a time he can be most effective.
So the Lakers got beat by a good team because they didn't play particularly well. For once, we're allowed the calming relaxation of just being beat. The Lakers didn't lack energy, they weren't out-hustled (except for what is natural in considering how much younger the Thunder are as a group). They just couldn't hit shots, couldn't generate strong offensive opportunities, and couldn't stop an unstoppable force. After the past week or so, it's a welcome peace, even if the accompanying result is less than pleasing.