OKLAHOMA CITY — It was a glass half-full, glass half-empty kind of night for the Los Angeles Lakers against the reigning West champs.
In one sense, everything that could go wrong Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder did. Kobe Bryant banged a nerve in his right elbow in the opening minutes, briefly had to leave the game and played through pain all night. Moments later Dwight Howard signaled for a timeout as the torn labrum in his ailing right shoulder seemed to flare. That issue and foul trouble made him a non-factor on either end of the floor, finishing with as many points (six) as fouls and as many field goals (one) as OKC’s six-minute man Hasheem Thabeet.
Yet despite a disaster of a 71-55 first half that sent Magic Johnson panic tweeting about deficient defense, a Steve Nash 3-pointer with 6:14 to go in the game made it OKC 110, L.A. 105, and a bit of apprehension gripped Loud City where the Thunder almost never lose.
The Lakers couldn’t buy a bucket the rest of the way; in fact, they didn’t score again and a game that felt like a Thunder rout throughout but wasn’t, ended up one anyway, 122-105.
“Kobe didn’t look hurt to me. We’re not going to feel sorry for them,” Kevin Durant said. “If they’re out there playing then they can play. Kobe looked fine. Dwight [Howard] looked fine. We know they’re a resilient team, they’ve been fighting hard all year. They made some shots in that second half. They were making 3s, hitting contested 2s.”
If — and it remains a big if — the Lakers make the playoffs, they very likely could face this incredibly athletic and talented Thunder cast in the first round. If you’re buying half-full after this one then you believe that the Lakers are improving, that with a little more time, with a more engaged Howard (six points, six fouls, 16 rebounds in 37 minutes), with the likely return of Pau Gasol, they can at least muster up a scare.
If you’ve accepted that the 30-31 Lakers’ glass is half-empty with 21 games left, which in practical terms means their playoff tank is virtually bone dry, the view is that Kobe’s old-and-slow crew simply isn’t in the same class as the young Thunder with their dynamic, practically unguardable duo of Durant and Russell Westbrook, who was Wednesday’s leading scorer with 37 points on 15-for-29 shooting, plus 10 rebounds and five assists.
So which is it, half-full and rising or half-empty and leaking? Kobe just might have provided the answer when asked if the Lakers have the depth to make a seven-game series competitive with the Thunder, who got 63 points from Durant and Westbrook, and 39 more from its bench despite a slumping Kevin Martin.
“We do, but we don’t have the athleticism that they do, so if we allow them to play to their strengths and use their athleticism we’re going to be in trouble,” said Kobe, who finished with 30 points and a bum elbow. “They’re ready to get up and down and use their speed to get to the rim and we have to be able to alter that. If we can stay in front of the ball and be solid defensively, we give ourselves a much better chance.”
The fact is the Lakers aren’t built to stay in front of the Thunder. Westbrook, 24, can’t be guarded by the 39-year-old Nash, and if Kobe’s on Westbrook then he can’t be on Durant, who is too much for Metta World Peace. Even speedy second-year guard Reggie Jackson had his way in the paint, juking for two key drives in the fourth quarter. The Lakers’ perimeter defense — and transition defense — failed miserably and Howard either wasn’t in position to guard the paint or was hung out to dry.
The numbers are jarring in the categories that include being able to “stay in front of the ball and be solid defensively.”
OKC outscored L.A. 52-22 in the paint and 22-6 on fast-break points. The Lakers committed 16 turnovers that the Thunder turned into 22 points. Meanwhile, in an anomaly, OKC tied an NBA record with just two turnovers. That won’t happen again, but unless the Lakers get a grip on their own turnovers — which they haven’t all season, ranking 27th in the league — it simply won’t matter.
No team other than the Miami Heat cashes turnovers into points more quickly than the Thunder.
But for those who insist on the Lakers’ glass still being half-full:
“I still think our team is capable,” said Nash, who corrected a 1-for-7 first half from the floor to score 20 points on 7-for-15 shooting. “I don’t think we had a good performance tonight by any means and we still had our chances to cut the lead to two or three a couple times. This is a process for our team. By no means are we a finished product or even in a comfortable place. We’re just trying to find ourselves still.”
They’ll find themselves in New Orleans Wednesday night, desperate again to get a win.