HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Those reports about the Lakers’ demise might have been a wee bit premature.
That same team everyone was so worried about before the All-Star break, the one that lost to lowly Cleveland and contemplated diving into the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes is suddenly playing like a two-time defending champion again.
Four straight wins since the break, highlighted by Sunday’s playoff-style rumble in Oklahoma City against the Thunder, have everyone looking at things a bit differently as all of playoff-bound teams prepare for the stretch run of this season.
The Lakers, for one, don’t look nearly as vulnerable on the defensive end as that wary bunch we saw before the break. It’s amazing what four days of rest and four solid games can do to the perception of a team, particularly one as scrutinized as the Lakers.
“I think the rest did the guys some good,” Kobe Bryant told the Los Angeles Times after scoring just 17 points but setting another milestone by passing Elvin Hayes for seventh on the NBA career-scoring list. “It was kind of a chance to recover, regroup and focus on the opportunity that we have ahead of ourselves.”
The Lakers’ defense was unbelievable against the attacking Thunder. Ron Artest was at his active best and perhaps most important, Andrew Bynum was dominating on the defensive end. He blocked five shots and showed why so many in the Lakers organization cringe anytime his names comes up in trade rumors.
But the Lakers had all of their defensive wiles working Sunday. More from the Times:
The Lakers took five charges, another sign of how in tune they were on defense.
Even with that, the Lakers didn’t escape until [Kevin] Durant and James Harden missed three-point shots in the game’s final moments.
“We were fortunate to come away with that win,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. “Two shots like they had at the end of the game were good looks. But we did the job in the second half defensively.”
Perhaps the biggest defensive play was made by Pau Gasol.
The 7-foot Gasol took a charge against 6-3 guard Russell Westbrook with 17.3 seconds left and the Lakers protecting a three-point lead.
“It was a good charge,” said Gasol, who had 18 points and 11 rebounds. “It was a big charge night.”
So big that Jackson couldn’t remember the last time the Lakers took so many.
“Never,” Jackson said. “I can’t remember our team doing this many. We talk to them about it and today they did it.”
Artest again held Durant, the NBA’s scoring leader, below his 28.6 points-per-game average.
Artest also came up big late in the game, knocking the ball away from Durant with 49.9 seconds left and the Lakers leading, 90-87.
“I’ve got to give 100% every night because I’m only getting older and he’s only reaching his prime,” Artest said.
Artest is right. But not just about his matchup with Durant.
The same applies to the Lakers and their opposition most nights. They’ve got to give 100 percent because they’re getting older and much of their competition, both in the Western Conference and in the Eastern Conference, are reaching their prime.