OKLAHOMA CITY – The Lakers pushed the pace, but they weren’t quick enough. They showed more effort, but not enough discipline. They showed they’ve progressed, but there’s still plenty of unfinished business.
That’s why the Lakers’ 114-108 loss Friday to the Oklahoma City Thunder insist things have changed since six months ago.
That’s when the Lakers fell in five games to the Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals. Since then, the cast of characters has changed. The Lakers acquired an elite point guard (Steve Nash) and an elite center (Dwight Howard). After five games seeing an assembled cast of four future Hall-of-Famers, out went Mike Brown and the Princeton offense. In came Mike D’Antoni and his high octane system.
The absences of Nash (fractured left foot), Pau Gasol (tendinitis in both knees) and Steve Blake (surgery on lower abdominal strain) suggest the Lakers may improve their a 42.9 percent mark of the field and 17 turnovers should these two teams in the playoffs.
And the Lakers (9-11) sensed a mark of growth even through the loss to the West’s top-ranked Thunder (16-4).
“I felt we played hard,” said Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who scored a team-leading 35 points on 11 of 24 shooting. “I don’t want to be excited about how hard we played. But this kind of effort is what we should see every night.”
Yet, things fell apart because of a second quarter where the Lakers allowed 41 points.
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who scored 33 points and a career-high five three-pointers, unleashed imaginary guns from his imaginary holster after each basket. He’s repeated the past custom the past two years where the former UCLA product frustrated the Lakers with his unmatched speed. Even as he fell after a forceful push in a late-second quarter play, Westbrook still delivered a dagger in the Lakers’ hearts.
Like most all of the others before, Westbrook’s three-pointer dropped into the basket. He kicked his legs up in excitement mere moments after Lakers guard Chris Duhon bumped him to the ground. The Lakers looked paralyzed, unsure how they’d ever stop the former UCLA product.
“Tonight was a matter of Westbrook,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It wasn’t us. Westbrook just went crazy on us.”
That slowed down in the second half where Westbrook posted only four points.
The Lakers clinged to other signs of development.
Bryant carried the Lakers with an array of shots that often featured jumpers, bank shots and fallaways against multiple jumpers. Howard showed more aggressiveness establishing post position for points (23), fighting for the boards (18) and even knocking down free throws (five of seven). Jodie Meeks continued a healthy streak of needed outside shooting (17 point on a four of eight clip).
Yet, some things still remained absent beyond the Lakers’ injury-riddled roster.
Metta World Peace’s off-season conditioning didn’t prove enough to limit the NBA’s second-leading scorer, Kevin Durant, who posted 36 points on a 10 of 19 clip. Instead, World Peace directed his frustration by nearly getting in an altercation with Serge Ibaka and drawing a technical foul as they fought for positioning during a free throw with fewer than three minutes left in the game. The Lakers couldn’t stop the Thunder’s bench effort, with Nick Collison and Kevin Martin combining for 24 points.
World Peace wouldn’t address the incident with Ibaka, but he contradicted team sentiment when he expressed unhappiness with the team’s play.
“No loss is encouraging,” World Peace. “You always want to win every game.”
Meanwhile, Westbrook’s scoring output also provided tangible reminders that even Nash’s eventual return after sitting out with a fractured left leg for the past 18 games won’t stop him, either.
Simply put, the Lakers showed flashes of a faster-paced offense and energetic defense to make the outcome respectable. But it still wasn’t enough to cross the finish line.