The Los Angeles Lakers went into Friday's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder with a 9-10 record, nearly a quarter of a season's worth of frustration and disappointment already banked, and little hope for quick improvement. They've defeated very few good teams and none on the road. An already top-heavy roster is missing two of its four best players, not only lopping off half the elite talent, but forcing Mike D'Antoni into minutes for players who otherwise wouldn't take off their sweats.
Meanwhile, the Thunder entered the game at 15-4, winners of six straight, scorers of 100 or more in 10 straight and allowers of the second-lowest opponent's field goal percentage in the NBA. They feature two of the game's best young stars, including its best scorer in Kevin Durant.
The Thunder are always brutally tough at home.
Every night, the Lakers play toting incredibly high expectations, appropriate given the stakes of this season. They're supposed to win now. The title window lasts two years. Maybe. But there is a huge gap between what is expected of the Lakers this season and the capabilities of the actual team taking the floor for them right now.
Frankly, the players available to the Lakers on Friday had no business beating the Thunder. And they didn't. Not because they didn't try or weren't invested. The Lakers played hard long after it was pretty clear who would win and nearly caught the Thunder. But late rally notwithstanding, during the meat of the game, L.A. simply wasn't as good. The Lakers lacked the ability to attack consistently against a very stout OKC defense, and lacked the athleticism to stay with the Thunder during a second-quarter avalanche of transition scoring, outside shooting and Russell Westbrook.
Whether the Lakers can become elite when Steve Nash and Pau Gasol return remains to be seen. While it's easy to poke fun at D'Antoni's insistence that Nash's return makes everything -- your morning commute, your lower back pain, the fiscal cliff, everything -- better, there's certainly some truth to it. On Friday we all saw how much better Nash (and Gasol, and to a lesser extent Steve Blake) need to make the Lakers, because today they're a long way from catching Oklahoma City.
Here are four other takeaways:
Bryant needs Nash back sooner rather than later
There are plenty of things for the Lakers to dislike about losing, particularly given how often they've done it this season. There's a real chance they're playing themselves into the bottom half of the playoff bracket, meaning they would have to beat three elite teams to escape the Western Conference. But among the bigger negatives is the effort required of Kobe Bryant as he tries to keep the game close. Playing primary ball handler and primary scorer just isn't an option against a good defensive team such as the Thunder, who can sic five pairs of eyes on him when he's playing the point ... and dare someone else to beat them when he doesn't. The lack of playmakers around him forced Bryant into some very difficult shots, many of which he managed to make. But there was some serious effort going on, including some of his most attentive defensive work of the season.
He finished with 35 points on 11-of-24 shooting, dishing out seven assists (against five turnovers), along with three steals and two blocks over 43:30 of playing time. There are nights Kobe might be on the floor for more than 40 minutes without having to use that much gas from his tank. This wasn't one of them. Every game Kobe spends working so hard to keep his team in it -- particularly those games in which the Lakers lose -- threatens his energy level at the end of the season.
Meeks played well
The Lakers needed another guy to pick up the slack offensively. While Jodie Meeks’ game isn't ideally suited for it, he extended himself against the Thunder. In the first half, Meeks hit a couple of triples (that's his job), but over the course of game, he got himself to the line eight times, including twice drawing contact on 3-point attempts. He finished with 17 points, was active on the glass (five rebounds) and, on a night when no other teammates finished on the right side of the plus/minus stat, was plus-11.
When Westbrook is hitting outside shots, it's game over
Don't believe me? Go back and watch the second quarter again. Can Chris Duhon stick with Westbrook? Of course not. Nobody can. But the Lakers had him taking the sorts of shots you'd generally want. Westbrook hit 'em anyway -- 4-of-5 from 3-point range in the first half, from a guy who went in as a 33 percent shooter from distance. The Lakers stuck around early thanks to great work on the offensive glass in the first quarter (nine as a team) and good free throw shooting. But in the second quarter, the shots and second-chance points dried up. Oklahoma City got running, and Westbrook buried L.A.
The Lakers managed to put a lid on him in the second half, but it didn't matter.
Howard wasn't pristine, but 23 points and 18 rebounds isn't exactly chopped liver
He still needs to cut down on his turnovers (six Friday), but overall, Dwight Howard continues trending in the right direction.