Thunder brings out best in Lakers
Los Angeles cemented its best win of the year by beating up-and-coming Oklahoma City
LOS ANGELES -- The Oklahoma City Thunder are so young, so gifted, so athletic that they got Kobe Bryant amped up enough to hang and swing from the rim after a two-handed dunk Monday night. His dangling legs reminded the sellout crowd that although Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook might have "next," Bryant and the defending champion Lakers still have "now."
There's just something about the boys in blue from OKC that gets the Lakers attention.
The Thunder did it again Monday as the Lakers, whose focus has been far more lackluster than laserlike through the first half of the season, looked like a sharp, purposeful group in a 101-94 win, perhaps their best win since Game 7 of the Finals last year.
They never would have sniffed a chance at a championship if the Thunder hadn't provided a smelling-salts-like experience in the first round, routing L.A. 110-89 in Game 4 to even up the series 2-2 and turning something on inside of the Lakers.
"I thought our offensive execution last year is what had to improve, and I think that the series against Oklahoma helped us think it out and so we could act it out in later series," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said after he saw his squad execute to the tune of 50 percent shooting from the field aided by assists coming on 63 percent of its made baskets. "I thought it got us going."
If you remember, the Lakers were going nowhere fast when they stumbled into the postseason in April. They had lost seven of their final 11 games, falling behind Orlando for the No. 2 overall seed when they had publicly stated their goal of at least beating out the Magic when Cleveland became uncatchable.
To beat the merry band of upstarts, the Lakers realized they needed to make some changes to keep the Thunder from turning bad passes and long defensive rebounds into uncontested fast-break points on the other end.
"I think it raised our level," Bryant said. "Throughout the entire playoffs, we didn't face a team that played with that kind of energy. They played with a lot of energy, so for us to step up and match that and go through the rest of the series, I think it was a good start for us."
Even though Bryant had five turnovers Monday, he played a controlled and balanced offense, scoring 21 points on just 12 shot attempts to go with seven assists.
He also went back to guarding Westbrook, a challenge he took upon himself during the series last year because Westbrook, not the league's leading scorer, Durant, was destroying the L.A. defense.
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The most animated Bryant got all night was tearing into Lamar Odom when he didn't help on a screen when the Thunder ran a pick-and-roll to try to create some space for Westbrook to blow by Bryant.
"If I'm going to get lit up, l'm going to get lit up one-on-one," Bryant said, explaining the outburst. "I'm not going to get lit up because they don't show up [to help]. You're not going to light my [butt] up because they're [screwing] up. I'm not down with that."
The Lakers didn't totally shut down the Thunder. Oklahoma City still outscored L.A. 16-5 in transition points and Westbrook scored a game-high 32 on 12-of-23 shooting, but then again, the Lakers shouldn't expect to totally put the clamps down. The 27-14 Thunder have the third-best record in the West, just three games behind the No. 2 Lakers.
Last year in the playoffs, the 57-win Lakers were the No. 1 seed and the 50-win Thunder were No. 8. Oklahoma City improved thanks to Los Angeles, too. This is a symbiotic relationship that goes both ways.
"I learned every possession is important," Durant said. "We lost on a tip in [Game 6] with 0.5 seconds left. There was a lot of minutes played, a lot of seconds played in that series, and we lost the series on a tip-in with 0.5 seconds left. So, every possession is important. I missed a layup in the first half of that game; if I had made it, we would have won. Every possession is key."
Durant also said he patterns his game after two players: the way Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki plays and the way Bryant thinks.
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"I look at how Kobe Bryant approaches the game," Durant said. "I just look at his face and see how focused he is. If you look at a guy like that in a game, you can kind of tell what he's thinking and how he wants to approach it in a mental aspect; that's how I try to look at it."
The Lakers look at the Thunder as worthy adversaries.
"You have to really be at the top of your game and really focus and tune in [on] what you need to do against this team and understand who you're playing against," Pau Gasol said.
They're playing like a team Bryant said he could envision facing off against in the playoffs once again.
"You know," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the game, seeing his team come up just short against the Lakers once again, "they're the best team in basketball."
He should know. He coaches the team that gets the best out of them.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.