OKLAHOMA CITY — Talk to me about the Los Angeles Lakers about a dozen games after the next time Steve Nash and Pau Gasol lace up their sneakers on the same night. Then we’ll see if this teetering Lake Show soap ultimately goes tragedy or action thriller.
On Friday night at a rocking and raucous Chesapeake Energy Arena, where they’re already primed for the playoffs, the humble hometown servants were once again dynamite. The surging Oklahoma City Thunder singed the short-handed Lakers 114-108 for a seventh consecutive victory.
It wasn’t as close as the final score looks, with the game effectively put at arm’s length with OKC’s electric, 41-point second-quarter.
So let’s forget for a moment the team that generates daily headlines and focus on those quiet defending Western Conference champs. Give the wheezing team that’s riding a determined Kobe Bryant into the ground a rest, and concentrate on the club that continues to ascend on the massive wings of its dynamic young superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, neither of whom have even entered their prime.
Twenty games in and it certainly appears that any overreaction to the James Harden trade five days before the season’s first tip was just that. The Beard will always be loved in OKC, but missed? Well, you wouldn’t know it.
While Harden was putting up 29 points for his Houston Rockets and getting whacked in San Antonio, his old mates up I-35 were delivering a spectacular whooping that started with Westbrook’s scintillating pop-a-shot 27-point first half (he finished with 33 points, including a career-best five 3-pointers, eight assists and just two turnovers) and ended with Kevin Durant applying the finishing-touch free throws on a 36-point, nine-rebound, four-assist demolition.
“That’s easy to say,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said when asked if his team should have defended Westbrook better during his 14-point, four assist free-for-all in the second quarter. “I don’t think anybody in this group is going to guard him.”
And that includes Nash when he comes back. But forget about that for now.
Yes, the Thunder fall into those lulls that trim big leads into not-as-big leads, as was the case Friday. And there’s still “Russ The Wild Roller Coaster Ride” where 10-for-16 and 27 points in the first half and 2-for-10 and six points in the second half is possible.
So be it. This juggernaut is averaging a league-best 106.2 points, so find me anyone who’s complaining.
All-in-all, the Thunder made no statements of superiority on this night. They needed to beat an injured Lakers team that dropped to 9-11 and 2-6 on the road. But what they did do was continue their evolution as an all-around basketball team.
Offensively, OKC moves the ball swiftly and effectively as any team, a development that lends credit to Harden’s replacement, Kevin Martin, who spreads the floor and has buried nearly half his 3-point attempts, and the expanded range of Serge Ibaka, an elite shot-blocker whose scoring has spiked from 9.1 points last season to 14.4 and a career-best 59.5 percent accuracy rate.
Westbrook is averaging nearly nine assists a game, putting him in the rare air of the game’s best passers. As a team, the Thunder has risen from last in the league in assists to seventh. They had 10 on 15 baskets in the second quarter as Durant, Westbrook and Martin combined to outscore L.A. 35-26 and dish two more dimes.
“Our offense has always been a drive-and-kick,” said Durant. “We have so many good one-on-one players and with adding Kevin Martin, he’s more of a spot-up, catch-and-go type of guy, so we’re getting assists from him, and Serge [Ibaka] is shooting the ball well. Everybody’s just moving the ball.”
The defensive end, rarely discussed as a weapon, is also surging. OKC’s defensive rating has risen from top 10 last season to top five. Examples: After Durant’s 3-pointer made it 83-66 in the third quarter, Westbrook pressured full-court and denied Lakers guard Chris Duhon the inbounds pass. Two minutes later, with Durant draped on Kobe, who grinded out every one his team-high 35 points, Westbrook trapped and nearly forced a steal.
When Durant wasn’t enveloping Kobe with his spindly limbs, defensive specialist Thabo Sefalosha had a hand in his face. Quick hands and quicker rotations forced turnovers and missed shots and opened the floor for layups and dunks the other way.
Three steals and 14 missed Lakers shots led to 20 Thunder fastbreak points in the warp-speed second quarter.
“I told our guys that we have to really lock into the defensive end and I told them we really have to play with our hands,” OKC coach Scott Brooks said. That’s how we’ve always been a good team — deflections, steals, blocks, rebounds and go. And I thought that second quarter we did that as well as we did throughout that game.”
The Thunder rank second in field-goal defense (42.9 percent) and despite the Lakers’ inflated point total with 33 coming in the final period, OKC held them below 40 percent shooting for much of the game.
Because of their explosive offense, the Thunder probably don’t get enough credit for their defense, even though three starters are more geared to that end — Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Ibaka. Brooks said his defending West champs, so dynamic and explosive on the offensive end, are growing tougher on the other end.
That should scare the Lakers and a whole lot of other teams.
“I don’t know where we’re rated [defensively], I just know we’re good because that’s all we focus on,” Brooks said. “Are we better? I think we’re better. It all comes down to toughness. If we play tough, we can get stops.”