Lakers suddenly anxious after 120-106 loss to Oklahoma City Thunder
Before he could see any of his teammates, Kobe Bryant immediately darted into the trainer's room.
Bryant usually goes through this ritual at some point following a game, receiving extensive treatment and icing on his assorted injuries, most notably his surgically repaired right knee and arthritic right index finger. But not this soon. The Lakers' 120-106 loss Sunday to the Oklahoma City Thunder agitated him so much he wanted to avoid any contact with teammates.
Whether it's a deliberate message or a way to temper his emotions, the Lakers didn't exactly hear what the co-captain had to say about the team's season-high fifth consecutive loss or even his three turnovers in the final three minutes overshadowing his 31 points on 10-of-19 shooting, a statistic he attributed to Oklahoma City's defense. But it's a sign nonetheless that the Lakers' losses are more than just blips.
"I didn't want to redecorate the walls in here so I made the effort to go in the training room and keep to myself," Bryant said 62 minutes after the game ended and then responded sarcastically to whether he was mad. "No, not at all."
Bryant was uncertain on whether the Lakers can turn things around in the two remaining regular-season games -- Tuesday against San Antonio and Wednesday at Sacramento -- in time for the Lakers to be at their best once the playoffs start, offering a tepid, "I hope so." Lakers forward Pau Gasol suddenly called the last two games "must-win." And both Bryant and Lakers center Andrew Bynum argued they need a long practice Monday to expedite all the corrections they need to make.
The reason for the Lakers' increased unhappiness points to how their continual losing makes it more and more obvious they're setting themselves up for drastic home-court implications. A Lakers' victory and a Mavericks loss to Phoenix on Sunday would've secured a No. 2 seeding in the Western Conference. Instead, the opposite happened. The Lakers and Dallas Mavericks are tied at 55-25 for the second spot in the West, while the Thunder closed the gap to one game behind them. Though the Lakers hold both a tiebreaker over Dallas after locking up the Pacific Division and over Oklahoma City after finishing 2-1 in the regular-season series, that's not making the Lakers any more comfortable. Although Lakers Coach Phil Jackson told his team not to pay attention to the Eastern Conference teams because it promotes looking ahead to a possible NBA Finals matchup, it's hard not to notice the Miami Heat (56-25) have a one-game edge over the Lakers, while Boston (55-25) remains tied.
"We were complacent a little bit and we got caught," Jackson said, referring to the team's previous three losses against Utah, Golden State and Portland. "I told them yesterday I didn't think we could turn it around in one game."
The Lakers allowed Oklahoma City to shoot 55.6% from the field, 47.1% from three-point range and outrebound them 38-34, areas the Lakers usually dominate considering the team's defensive scheme that funnels drivers into the team's frontline had largely spurred the Lakers' 17-1 effort following the All-Star break. Instead, the Lakers displayed a defense Bryant described as "horrible."
The Thunder went on a 17-2 run, including a possession that exemplified the Lakers' poor play: Ron Artest airballed a three-pointer, Bryant grabbed the rebound and then airballed another trey. They again had no answer for Russell Westbrook's speed (26 points, seven assists and six rebounds). Artest normally forces Thunder forward Kevin Durant into a poor shooting clip to get his points, but his 31 points came on 11-of-15 shooting. And even though Thunder center Kendrick Perkins scored only two points, his presence has sharpened Oklahoma City's toughness, particularly in the paint.
"We know we can win, but we need practice," Bynum said. "We're not a unit right now. There's a lot of individual things going right for certain guys, but as a unit collectively we're not there."
What's even more disconcerting, the Lakers actually tried this time. It featured Bryant and Gasol (26 points on 10-of-16 shooting) scoring at prolific rates, Steve Blake coming up with a rare solid shooting performance (nine points on three-of-three shooting) and Bryant refusing to back away from Perkins' headlock, which resulted in a technical foul for both. But the negatives, such as Gasol's four rebounds, Lamar Odom's sudden drop in productivity (seven points on three-of-nine shooting) and the blown fourth-quarter execution proved hard to watch.
To think, it was only last week that plenty centered on when the starters would begin resting, when "Khloe and Lamar" would debut on TV and whether the Lakers are suddenly invincible. Lakers guard and co-captain Derek Fisher reminded everyone that the Lakers went 6-7 in their final 13 regular-season games last season and were on the brink of elimination in a first-round series with the Sacramento Kings and the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2000 playoffs, only to finish with favorable results. It could very well be one of those times once again. But the Lakers have a lot of work to do with little room for error.
"This one is tough for us because we were playing so well," FIsher said. "This is coming at a really bad time for us in terms of how we finish the regular season, but we still have an opportunity to solidify our spot."
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Photos: (Top) Lakers guard Kobe Bryant loses control of the ball as he's defended by Thunder guards Thabo Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook late in the game Sunday night at Staples Center. (Bottom) Lakers guard Derek Fisher beats Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha to a loose ball in the game Sunday evening at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times