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Lakers 90, Thunder 87: The Champs Are Starting to Swag

Wow, it's kind of bright in here all of a sudden. Everything was dim and shadowy just a few minutes ago, but now there's illumination to spare. It's like someone has caused energy to flow through the metal filament in a small glass bulb hanging from the ceiling. Maybe - I mean, hypothetically - they did so by toggling a small, plastic, wall-mounted component available in fine hardware stores everywhere. It's almost like someone.... flipped a switch?

Perhaps that's taking it a smidge too far. It's still too early to say the Lakers have overcome their pre-All Star difficulties. But the break appears to have done them a world of good. They've roared into the regular-season homestretch with four straight impressive wins, the latest a closely fought 90 to 87 road victory in Oklahoma City. After trailing by as many as 14 points in the second quarter, the Lakers did their best impression of the '93 Knicks in the second half, smothering the Thunder in a display of championship-worthy defense. The win establishes a 4½-game cushion over OKC and gives the Lakers the head-to-head season tiebreaker, essentially guaranteeing that they'll be seeded no worse than third in the West.

Given the early tip-off and that yesterday was a time-zone-spanning travel day for the champs, it's not surprising that the Thunder were the sharper side at the outset. They needed only a few minutes to build up a nine-point lead. Russell Westbrook was knifing into the Laker D with ease, as he usually does, and OKC enjoyed some surprise early contributions from Thabo Sefolosha, who scored seven points in the first quarter. The Thunder were successfully pushing the ball at a pace that didn't especially suit their groggy visitors. Over their last two possessions of the first period and their first four possessions of the second, OKC went on a 12-2 run powered by reserve wings James Harden and Daequan Cook.

The Laker comeback started with Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown and Andrew Bynum. These bros combined to score 16 points in a four-minute span to shrink the lead down to four. Drew, for his part, began to impose his will at the defensive end. From the middle of the second quarter on, his length, bulk and mobility caused all kinds of problems for OKC. He blocked five shots on the afternoon and helped force the Thunder to rely heavily on outside jumpers, which isn't a strength of theirs. Pau Gasol, although he had a strong offensive game (18 points on 16 shots, including free-throw possessions), in particular on the offensive glass (five offensive boards leading to seven second-chance points), wasn't as successful anchoring the Lakers' D interior. After Pau subbed in for Drew with 3:32 left in the half, the Thunder scored 10 points on their next seven possessions to go into the break up five.

The second half was among the most ferocious defensive stretches the Lakers have put together this season. There was snarling pressure on ball-handlers, leading to a mess of OKC turnovers. Guys were communicating and providing help where needed. Shots were challenged and charges taken. It was an exhilarating thing to watch. After allowing the Thunder to score 1.24 points per possession in the first half, the Lake Show put that shit on lock. Over the third and fourth quarters, the home team scraped up only 31 points total, averaging out to a tasty 0.72 per trip. The Lakers' offense in the second half wasn't anything brilliant, but the spectacular D was enough to establish a small lead at the end of the third that held up down the stretch.

Big dap goes out to Ron Artest, who once again taught young Kevin Durant a lesson about spending time in the weight room. Durant scored 21 points but needed 22 shots to get there and committed five turnovers to boot. This sort of stat line - lotsa points, low efficiency - has become very typical for KD against the Lakers. Ron has figured out how to bully the kid without fouling, and that gives the purp and yellow a major advantage in this matchup.

Turnovers were a headache for the Thunder all afternoon long. They had at least four TO's in every quarter and for the game coughed it up on 19% of their plays. And it's not like they're a turnover-prone team: coming into today, they ranked sixth in the league in TO rate. This was just sound, energetic D on the Lakers' part. Active hands, bodying up to ball-handlers, sliding into position in the paint.... great technique produced great results.

I wish I could be so complimentary about the Lakers' endgame offense. Let's be honest with each other: it sucked. In the last five minutes, with the Thunder keeping it close and trying to claw out a win, the Lakers sagged into their predictable Kobe-iso attack, which didn't really work. They got away with it because their D was so damn good, but over their final nine possessions they scored six measly points. Most of those trips were Kobe trying to back someone down from 22 feet away, and then hoisting a turnaround jumper with a hand in his face. In this stretch, Kobe went 2-for-6 with a turnover. Forget the tired debate about Kobe's clutchness or non-clutchness. This just isn't the best way for the Lakers to generate scores, and everybody - Phil Jackson, Kobe and his teammates - need to commit to a better approach.

A few other notes from this one:

  • Kendrick Perkins didn't play, of course, because of his injured MCL. But neither did Nazr Mohammed, which surprised me. I realize he hasn't been with the team long, but given his track record against the Lakers, I would've though Scotty Brooks could find some minutes for him.
  • Bad game for Eric Maynor, who shot 0-for-6 in 14 minutes. This won't help him hold off Nate Robinson on the depth chart.
  • Last but far from least, Kobe passed Elvin Hayes for seventh on the NBA's all-time scoring list.

Now at 42-19, the Lakers head to Minnesota to face the Timberwolves on Tuesday, then back home for the Bobcats on Friday. Matt Barnes should return at some point this week, a welcome addition that'll help keep the team swaggin'.











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