After pulling away from the Mavericks Wednesday night after a scrambled fourth quarter finish, the Lakers were headed to Oklahoma City to face the team holding one of the best records in the league. The Thunder, who entered the Thursday night match up with a 26-7 record, have only lost one of 15 games at home this season. Looking at how poorly the Lakers have been playing on the road since the shortened season began on Christmas, they were needing to play to the best of their abilities to complete a perfect road trip with back to back wins. L.A. was looking to once again push all of the front office negativity that has be swarming around the media behind them in order to compete with a Thunder team that threw up 72 points in the first half alone against the Celtics on Wednesday.
The Lakers, who are ranked first in the NBA for their rebounding, had been able to snatch up consecutive wins against the Blazers and the Mavericks with the big play on the boards from Bynum and Gasol. The initiation of smarter ball movement has resulted in better shot decisions, thus allowing the Lakers to grab large early leads and hold onto them long enough to walk away with the win. Although Kobe Bryant shot 4-15 in Dallas and added only 15 points to the scoreboard, one of the biggest issues L.A. had to address coming into OKC was their free throw shooting, at one point missing six in a row in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter against Dallas. The Lakers shot an ugly 18-31 from the free throw line. As the Thunder continue stomping on any of their opponents with a large combo of points from both Durant and Westbrook, the Lakers had to pull out some defensive answers if they were expecting to head back to LA with an upset over the best team in the West.
Oklahoma City came out tough on defense, shutting down Andrew Bynum in back to back attempts to take the ball to the hole. Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace combined for the Lakers first five points of the game, a complete turnaround from the pairs’ poor shooting in Dallas the night before. The three biggest threats for the Thunder in Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka started off hot on offense as well, putting the Thunder up 12-7 just as five minutes had passed. OKC was showcasing the age gap between its players and the visiting team, showing off athletic blocks and speed in transition to force the Lakers to get off to a quicker start than usual. Metta World Peace definitely came to play, making himself open for shots and even defensively shutting down Kevin Durant on a fast break to force a turnover.
The Lakers continued to push forward on offense, becoming competitive with Durant and Westbrook’s fast paced defense by moving the ball around and finding Bynum in the paint, allowing him to show off his size by reaching over defenders to put the ball in the basket. Kobe Bryant began finding his offensive rhythm that had been missing since the game in Los Angeles against Portland, getting a total of 10 points in the first quarter. Kevin Durant had a decent first of his own, tacking nine points of his own on the scoreboard. Troy Murphy made a positive impact as soon as he entered the game as well, hitting his only shot of the quarter with a jumper from 18 feet. L.A.’s defensive game held the high scoring Thunder to a low 19 at the end of the first, staying on top 23-19.
With the Lakers controlling the tempo of the game in the first quarter, the Thunder came out in the second looking towards increased defense to shut down any rhythm Bynum and Gasol tried to get started. With Andrew Bynum struggling this season whenever he faces a double team while on offense, OKC looked as if they were going to retake the lead as soon as the quarter started. Steve Blake then began proving why he is a key asset off of the bench, hitting two buckets to help keep Los Angeles ahead. The Lakers’ rookie Andrew Goudelock was not looking as proficient as he had been in recent games, missing back to back shot attempts and then fouling James Harden to send him to the line to bring the Thunder back within one.
With Kobe Bryant becoming staggered on offense and no one else on the floor able to clean up after him, Kevin Durant and the Thunder started taking over the game, finding Kevin Durant repeatedly to hit basket after basket. James Harden and Kevin Durant combined for a large majority of the Thunders second quarter baskets with a combination of assists, attempts from the field and free throws. With Oklahoma City being the current holders of the best shooting percentage from the free throw line, the Lakers had to either stop committing numerous shooting fouls or continue making baskets of their own to the point that the free throws wouldn’t make a large difference.
Metta World Peace and Derek Fisher got the game back in motion for Los Angeles, with Metta hitting a deep three followed by a Fisher layup. They quickly lost focus, however, as the half only contained under 15 seconds, allowing a Westbrook three-pointer to lose their lead that they worked so hard to keep control of. Bynum had a final lapse of concentration right before the buzzer, giving away a bad in-bounds pass to Kevin Durant who drained a 15-foot jumper as the buzzer rang, putting the Thunder up 46-43 at the half.
Next Page: Second Half