Lakers overcome challenges in 101-94 victory over Oklahoma City Thunder
A new player introduction flashed before the Staples Center scoreboard that perfectly summed up the team's state of being.
"A new dynasty demands excellence, requires patience. A dynasty falls down, rises up and rages on. A champion never stops and never quits."
In between the platitudes, the video featured several highlights capturing the 2010-11 season, ranging from Kobe Bryant jumpers, Pau Gasol hooks, Andrew Bynum dunks and Lamar Odom drives. But that video served as nothing more than just a movie trailer that featured all the best parts but ignored all the plot twists along the way. And in the Lakers' case, there's been several instances all season that's added intrigue to their quest to three-peat. Winning streaks marred by poor performances against both sub.-500 and marquee opponents. Reports focusing on the state of Bryant's and Andrew Bynum's health, Pau Gasol's tardiness, Ron Artest's frustration with Phil Jackson, Lamar Odom's fixation with celebrity, Derek Fisher's inconsistency and the team's overall hunger.
Yet, what the Lakers' 101-94 victory on Monday night over the Oklahoma City Thunder reveals is that challenges will remain throughout the season and into the playoffs. The Thunder presented challenges with cashing in on transition (16), the league-leading duo in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (56 combined points) and a young and hungry team that kept slashing as large as a 15-point Lakers' lead with the same determination that forced the Lakers to fight it out in a six-game, first round series in the 2010 playoffs. The Lakers surely entered similar circumstances the night before against the Clippers, a young and scrappy team that managed to overcome a deficit thanks to the same ingredients in fast-break buckets, quick guard play (Eric Gordon) and a young star intent on carrying the organization (Blake Griffin).
Just like the video board demonstrated, the Lakers' path to three-peat is supposed to bring challenges. But what defines the Lakers is how they respond to it, a test Coach Phil Jackson remembered serving the team well after surviving its first-round series last season against the Thunder. As a result, the Lakers (31-12) trail San Antonio (35-6) by five games in the Western Conference standings, hold a two-game lead over the Thunder (27-13), ended its four-game winning streak and worsened its 15-4 mark in games decided by seven points or less.
"Our offensive execution last year was what had to improve and the series against Oklahoma helped us think it out," Jackson said. "It got us going. Obviously the Utah series, we were going as well as we played."
Unlike the Lakers' 8-0 start, relatively easy schedule to start off the season and superior talent level, it's in fact necessary for the Lakers to fight through challenges, whether it be absorbing Bynum's absence to start the season, handling Matt Barnes' expected eight-week absence following surgery on his injured right knee or locker-room friction.
"We need adversity," Fisher said. "We need ups-and-downs. That's really where true growth takes place is during struggles and adverse situations. That goes for individuals as well as groups. As a team after tough losses or a bad stretch, you're forced to look in the mirror and you have to question some things. Are we doing the right things offensively and defensively. Without that, you never ask yourself those tough questions."
And with the Lakers approaching a tough schedule the next two weeks against Western Conference playoff teams in Dallas, Denver and Utah as well as a possible NBA Finals reunion with the Boston Celtics, the Thunder provided a good opening act on the adversities that lie ahead.
Bryant struggles at the free throw line, but carries the offense
Bryant epitomized the Lakers' nervousness as the Thunder remained within striking distance. Nearly everyone at Staples Center thought the Lakers secured the win after Bryant set up Gasol for a jumper at the charity stripe, giving the Lakers a 98-88 lead with 3:47 remaining. After the Thunder called timeout, the two chest-bumped before walking over to the sideline. It appeared the Lakers' work was done.
Two consecutive turnovers, however, led to Thunder points in transition. Then he missed three of six free throws with each short shot prompting Bryant to wince in frustration and teammates to encourage him.
"I was point shaving," Bryant deadpanned, drawing strong laughs from reporters.
By no means, however, did free throws define Bryant's performance. But the supportive gestures and prodding as he tried closing the game with free throws reflected the give-and-take Bryant provided the entire night toward his teammates, scoring 21 points on seven of 12 shooting with seven assists and five rebounds.
He only took one shot in the first quarter, opting for a facilitating role where he would find open cutters, whether it was Gasol for jumpers or Bynum for dunks. It also included a defensive role where he largely took on the task in defending Westbrook, fulfilling an unwinnable task that entails making him work for points and making sure no one else gets theirs.
In both instances, he harped and encouraged.
When Gasol mishandled an easy pass from Bryant, he scolded and then patted him on the back. "When Kobe is very vocal during the game, it has a positive effect on us," Gasol said. When Odom missed a defensive assignment, Bryant glared and yelled, while Odom nodded and listened. When Artest didn't know where to go on offense, Bryant vocally provided directions. When the Lakers didn't help out on screen-and-rolls involving Westbrook in the first half, his halftime instruction helped sharpen the execution in the second.
"I told my big guys to get their .... up there," Bryant said. "If I'm going to get lit up, I'm going to get lit up one-on-one. I'm not going to get lit up because they don't show up. That's exactly what I said. I'm not going to light my ... up because they're .... up. I'm not down with that."
It's not as if Bryant lacked any offensive aggressiveness, however. He just performed it when it was appropriate, such as when he weaved through a double team and finished with a two-handed slam that conjured up images of his younger playing days, his clutch jumper over James Harden that left his teeth clenched or the last two free throws he nailed that gave the Lakers a 101-94 lead with 15.1 seconds remaining.
Gasol overcomes a poor first-half performance
At a loss of explanations, Gasol has continued a trend where he's slugged through games, allowing his bottom-line statistics to camouflage poor energy, poor hustle and poor determination to fight through adversity. It appeared to be the same script for Gasol in the first half against Oklahoma City with a four-of-11 shooting clip. It pointed to the Thunder front line playing him physical, denying him good looks and fueling his frustration for zero trips to the free-throw line.
In the second half, however, Gasol went four of eight from the field, grabbed eight rebounds and proved he could be resilient during adverse moments. He tipped in a Bryant miss. He converted off a bounce pass from Odom. And he went five of five from the free-throw line, a strategy that consisted of Oklahoma City throwing hard fouls in hopes it'd intimidate the Lakers' front line, frustrate them and limit their production.
Asked for what's accounted for the first and second-half disparity, Jackson said he had no explanation: "I can't. You'd have to ask him about that. I'd be curious on what he would have to say." Gasol didn't say anything, though. "I'm not sure exactly why I haven't been as sharp as I normally have in the past, Gasol. I have to be positive and work on everything with my body and make sure I am efficient as I can be."
But Gasol fought through it, a necessary effort considering Bynum posted an acceptable 10 points and 10 rebounds but played only 22 minutes while collecting five fouls.
"I tried to make it easier for Pau," Bryant said. Instead of him banging and banging in the post, have him penetrate, slipping out and get some easy shots. All in al, I felt we read our coverages very well, got penetration, kicked it out, got open looks. That's a big key."
Artest plays exceptional defense on Durant
Artest joked in the locker room beforehand that he's going to spend his rescinded fine money from an ejection the day before against the Clippers on 10,000 In-N-Out Burgers, even going so far as to say that's the only reason he signed a five-year, $33-million deal with the Lakers in the 2009 offseason. In reality, Artest takes his dieting seriously and slimmed from 270 pounds to 250 this offseason in hopes he'd be more mobile and agile to defend Durant, though he was held to 35% during the first-round of the playoffs.
"He's working out maybe too much, too often," Jackson said. "You look at Ron, he's got a body like a bear. It's wide and broad. He's not built to get through screens and all those kind of things like Trevor [Ariza] was. This is a guy that's got to use his body and his muscular nature to defend."
Jackson then added: "I think he'll do fine."
That he did.
Durant finished one point below his regular-season average (24), but Artest made him work for his shot and provied largely instrumental in Durant's eight-of-24 shooting mark from the field, an effort that Fisher argues shows, "Ron is one of the best ever defensively."
Numerous instances, Artest made sure he'd remained glued to Durant. He cut through the lane to catch up to Durant as he penetrated baseline. He communicated with Bynum to switch on a pick-and-roll play as well as with Bryant when the two traded matchups on Durant and Westbrook to stop them from scoring in transition. And the shots Durant made mostly dropped with Artest in his face.
"Ron just stuck to him a little bit more," Bryant said. "I think we did a better job helping him off those pindowns. It's the same thing with me and Westbrook. Guys getting screens coming off, you got to have guys stepping up and giving you help for a second to help you get back on them. I think we did a lot better job in the second half."
That doesn't mean Artest completely fulfilled his responsibilities, as indicated by his reluctance to offer himself much praise. On one play he appeared so fixated with guarding Durant that he ignored Serge Ibaka flashing toward him in the lane. On another, he ignored Nick Collison cutting alone to the hoop for a dunk. And on others he appeared unaware of his needed presence on help defense, worried that a baseline cut or screen would enable to get Durant open for a basket.
"I had to work double time on defense," Artest said. "I didn't have a chance to get to go at him like I wanted to. As the game progressed, I didn't get a chance to work on him more. But I still did okay. I just had to work overtime."
Fisher shakes off shooting slump
Fisher shared the same frustration on his three-of-18 mark in the last three games as passionately Laker fans. He argued he missed easy shots, couldn't establish a rhythm and didn't always operate appropriately within the offense. So this time Fisher made sure he would takes that would be.
Fisher's season-high 15 points on five-of-10 shooting, a mark Jackson said "says something right there," doesn't just mark him as overcoming his poor shooting numbers. It showed a renewed focus on better shot selection. He took a wide-open three predicated on sharp ball movement to give the Lakers a 5-0 lead. He efficiently drove through the lane and nailed a floater followed by a three-pointer to give the Lakers a 63-59 lead with 9:39 left in the third quarter. And for good measure he made numerous deflections and a took a late-game charge that both spurred a momentum push and sent a strong message to the rest of the team.
"It was something that was really bothering me after the game last night," Fisher said of his shooting struggles. "It was something I wanted to correct."
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reacts after power forward Pau Gasol scores against the Thunder on Monday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant hangs on the rim after dunking against the Thunder in the second quarter Monday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol cuts off the drive of Oklahoma City guard James Harden on a pick-and-roll play in the first half Monday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest tries to muscle his way past Thunder guard James Harden and forward Nick Collison, who was called for a foul on the play in the first half Monday night at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers point guard Derek Fisher draws a blocking foul from Thunder power forward Jeff Green in the second quarter Monday night at Staples Center. Credit: Cary Edmondson / US Presswire