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Lakers 101, Thunder 94: Westbrook Is Not Enough

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It felt like spring in Los Angeles today. Temps in the high seventies beckoned you outside in the afternoon, and a tasty, nationally televised hoops contest enticed you back indoors at night. And as was the case last April, the opponent in town was the Oklahoma City Thunder, trying to snap an uncomfortably long losing streak at Staples Center. They'll have to try again their next time through, as the Lakers beat them at home for the 11th straight time, 101 to 94. How tonight's game unfolded no doubt seemed familiar to anyone who watched the two teams' first-round playoff battle last season: the Thunder got brilliant play from Russell Westbrook, low-efficiency scoring from Kevin Durant and loads of sweet nothing from everyone else. This, as they've been reminded, is not a roadmap to knocking off the defending champs.

The Lakers shook off the effects of yesterday's curious loss to the Clippers to post a robust offensive performance. Granted, these Thunder aren't the top-notch defensive moat-builders they were last season, but the 1.13 points per possession the Lakers scored is still a very solid mark, especially on the second night of a back-to-back set. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol scored 21 each, Lamar Odom (quietly but critically) contributed 16, and Derek Fisher played his best game of the season, scoring 15 points on 11 shots (including free-throw possessions). Of great importance was teamwide accuracy from beyond the arc. After shooting a horrendo 3-for-20 from distance against the Clips yesterday, the Lake Show made 7 of their 14 three-point attempts in this one.

In dramatic contrast, the performance of OKC's outside gunners was nothing less than an atrocity. "Led" by James Harden and Jeff Green, who missed 10 of 11 threes to set back the art of shooting at least a decade, the Thunder made just 2 of 22 from long distance. Not only did all these misses burn precious possessions, but they permitted the Lakers to concentrate their defensive efforts in the paint. It didn't stop Westbrook from repeatedly gashing the Laker D with his violent drives to the hoop, but it did limit Durant's clean looks. These two didn't get nearly enough help from their teammates, and as a result the Thunder offense, after a productive first half, suffered death by strangulation in the second.

At the outset, it looked as if Durant might well exorcise his Staples Center demons (which, I like to imagine, resemble Mario Lopez). He played the entire first quarter and scored 14 points on eight shots. The Thunder were doing damage in transition and looked a step faster than their hosts. When the purp and yellow had the ball, though, they were diligently working it inside and finding soft spots in the Thunder D. By the time the first period wrapped up with the teams tied at 28, the Lakers' starting frontline of Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest had combined for 17 points. Meanwhile, Kobe lurked.

Both offenses kept rolling in the second. For OKC, Westbrook became the primary scorer, putting up 10 in the period. Over and over, he came scorching around the corner off high pick-and-roll sets and flashed his peerless, fearless ability to get to the tin. The kid really is a marvelous athlete. More than any other basketball player, who he most reminds me of is Bo Jackson. The way Westbrook rips through a vertical seam in a defense is how Bo used to blast through defensive lines. In the second half, the Lakers would take Westbrook's driving lanes away just a little bit, but for long stretches the guy was close to unstoppable.

Durant, however, started to cool off in the second. Artest tightened up his D on the Thunder's top scorer, and the Lakers did a nice job of switching when he'd come off a screen. And at the other end, Kobe had begun to fire away. After attempting just one shot in the first quarter, he scored eight points on six shots in the second. Often this year, Kobe has waited until the third period to rally the offense to him, but tonight he made his move earlier. It was the right call, as he sparked the Lakers' to a 30-point quarter and a three-point halftime cushion.

The story of the second half is about how the Lake Show clamped down hard on D. In the first half, the Thunder 1.17 notched points per trip. That mark plummeted to 0.91 in the third quarter and 0.86 in the fourth. What changed? Most importantly, the Lakers stopped letting OKC rack up easy points at the free-throw line. The Thunder had 15 free-throw attempts in the first half but only seven in the second. Durant tried to pick up the slack but couldn't find a rhythm. At one point in the third quarter, he missed eight straight looks. And as mentioned, nobody from the Green-Harden-Krstic collection stepped forward to help out the two stars.

Incidentally, I'm not sure why Thabo Sefolosha (zero points in 19 minutes) even plays against the Lakers. Defense is his putative calling card, but Kobe has no trouble operating against him. And he brings nothing to the table on offense, meaning the Lakers have somewhere to hide Derek Fisher when the Thunder have the ball. Not that Harden was much better, obviously, but Thabo was definitely not helping the cause.

There was some titillating second-half drama as the champs opened up a 15-point lead and then almost let it slip away. Down the stretch, however, the lead never dipped below four. The OKC offense just didn't have enough punch ever to make it even a one-possession game. Some missed free throws in the late minutes made the final score closer than it should have been, but no matter: the Lakers move to 31-12, still well behind San Antonio but with a firm grip on second place in the West.











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