In a 48-minute match up between two hoop heavyweights, the difference between the victor and the defeated is always small. A win hinges on a series of defining moments. Sparked by a turnover or fueled by a brick here and there, a team goes on a run and creates separation, which occurs when one team lets their guard down for a few minutes.
On Friday, the Thunder needed precisely one minute and thirty-one seconds.
After a strong 10 points and 8 rebounds in the 1st quarter by Dwight Howard, the game stood knotted at 37 three minutes into the 2nd quarter. The Lakers bench entered the game and couldn’t find their range. A 10-0 run, the exclamation point a lob from Westbrook to Kevin Durant for a two-handed jam, opened the lead for OKC. Then, the clouds formed overhead and it began to rain jumpers. The Lakers momentary implosion couldn’t recover as the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook struck, exploding with back-to-back threes at the end of the 2nd quarter.
The rout was on.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, every time Westbrook sees Los Angeles scrawled across their chests, he probably flashes back to the two years of unfair criticism he endured backing up Darren Collison in Westwood, compartmentalizing him simply a dunker with some defensive skills. He couldn’t pass, let alone shoot, they said. They said similar about Gary Payton, save the dunking part, as he emerged from the then Pac-10, seriously underestimating his potential as an offensive player. Then, one summer, he asserted himself to become more potent, just like Westbrook.
27 points, 10-18 from the field, 5-7 from 3 in the first half, proves he put in the work. The rally cry once attributed to Russell called to let him shoot from the perimeter and just keep him out of the lane. It seems a team should let him shoot and tire himself out, as he started the second half missing eight straight. Durant displayed his usual consistency, sitting on 18 at the half, added 18 more in the second for 36 on the night.
The 114-108 loss demonstrates, despite the chatter surrounding Pau, Nash, and their debated importance to the team, the obvious difficulties of competing with an elite team at their house on a Friday night game without two starters. The Mike D’Antoni offense is predicated on Steve Nash running the show. The Lakers acquired both Nash and Howard in the off-season because of their outlandish success in the pick and roll. Kobe and Pau share two titles together because they mesh offensively. Without these two players and their proficiency in dime distribution and efficiency in scoring the rock, the Thunder outscore the Lakers 30-16 over an 8-minute span of the 2nd quarter, easily build a 19 point lead, and shift into cruise control for the remainder of the 4th quarter. But, the Lakers should signs of improvement in the face of adversity. They did not lie down.
They tried valiantly to turn the tables on their own recent history and almost stole on a team with a seemingly insurmountable lead. Jodie Meeks played defense well beyond the expectations of a catch-and-jack shooter, earning him some serious 4th quarter run. Duhon took what the defense gave him, sinking a floater and a few threes to help trim the deficit. Kobe never gives in, and hit a fantastic three of his 35 points from the corner with 15.3 seconds to prove it. The Lakers didn’t buckle under the 19-point yoke of a 4th quarter deficit, 100-81 with 7:42 on the clock. A 27-12 run brought the Lakers back to within four in the final seconds, but the first half surge, the one-plus minute the Lakers let down their guard, proved too much to overcome.
The silver lining in these dank, gray cloudy days in Southern California professional basketball is the Lakers continued to fight.