Kobe Bryant's imprint in Lakers' 111-87 victory over Oklahoma City goes beyond the box score
The Lakers had spent plenty of time Monday going through all that went wrong in their embarrassing Game 4 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. And it featured plenty of items to go over: the Lakers' poor shooting, poor rebounding, poor effort at the free-throw line and of course, the team's poor ability to counter the Thunder's transition points. Once the lengthy session ended, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant approached Coach Phil Jackson with a simple request.
"He said I'd like to take Westbrook," Jackson recalled Bryant saying.
Bryant was referring, of course, to Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook, the speedy UCLA product who had been largely instrumental in burning the Lakers' with 72 points in transition in the first four games, as well as making drives to the basket with ease past Lakers guard Derek Fisher. This request came from a player who vowed not wanting to guard him ever since the beginning of the series and who had been dealing with an assorted number of injuries. Although the avulsion fracture to his right index finger had officially healed, he still had to deal with arthritis in the knuckle of his same finger, his sore knee and sprained left ankle. But with the Lakers tied 2-2 with Oklahoma City in a series that became more and more competitive, Bryant simply chalked up the decision to "we had to make some adjustments."
Bryant's defense on Westbrook probably served as the biggest adjustment in the Lakers' 111-87 Game 5 victory Tuesday over the Oklahoma City Thunder. His official stat line -- 13 points on four of nine shooting - may appear mild compared to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combining for 46 points on 18 of 26 shooting, or even Ron Artest's shooting resurgence (a six of 11 clip for 14 points). But there's a reason OKC Coach Scott Brooks argued Bryant's play "set the tone defensively" and Artest thought it was a "smart switch."
He largely limited Westbrook to 15 points on four of 13 shooting, the exact performance the Lakers needed after they were left scratching their heads on whether they could stop Westbrook, and more importantly, responded to the Thunder's imposing Game 4 victory.
"If we’re going to be eliminated I didn’t want to go in thinking I could’ve done something about it," Bryant said. "I accept the challenge."
This was a different type of challenge Bryant embraced this series. First came his ability to overcome his nagging injuries and still showcase his scoring dominance in Game 2. Then came his ability to do that to the extreme in Game 3. That followed with Bryant taking the opposite approach in Game 4, opting not to take any shots in the entire first quarter while the team worked to get the ball inside. His approach in Game 5 seemed to serve as the best approach, with Bryant still leaving an imprint on the game even if it didn't involve any late-game theatrics.
"Kobe started off the game just giving me turns and assists," Bynum said of Bryant, who has seven assists. "Pau, also. That got me started early. As far as points in the paint, we were moving the ball and moving ourselves. When you do that, it forces defenses to collapes and then you get wide open cuts."
That started fairly early in the game, with Bryant throwing an alley oop lob for Bynum for a 6-0 lead, Bryant swiping a pass from Durant that led to an easy fast-break bucket for Bynum. And the chemistry continued onward. He had his shot back, such as when he cut up off Gasol’s down screen and pulled up for an elbow jumper as well as his runner that gave the Lakers a 55-34 half-time lead. He had lift, such as when Bryant received a pass from Gasol backdoor and converted on a reverse layup, or when he drove the lane in the third quarter past Westbrook and dumped a pass to Gasol for the layup. And he still had enough energy to play defense, making it a long and frustrating night for Westbrook.
"It’s more of a thrill [than scoring]; the defensive side of things because it’s harder," Bryant said."A guy with the ball for the most part dictates the tempo. The defensive play, it’s a bigger thrill for me personally than me scoring."
Yet for the Lakers, it was something that helped the team the most in retaking control of the series.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant spins past Thunder forward Kevin Durant (background) to score in Game 5 on Tuesday night at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.