To be honest, it was perfectly understandable why the Thunder looked sluggish and a bit off for the first 3 quarters. You’re talking about a team with the NBA’s best record taking on a team with the NBA’s 5th worst record. (And whoever thought the Lakers would be considered a “bad team”?) It’s just hard to get yourself geared up for games you’re expected to dominate.
It’s weird how, at one point, Thunder-Lakers became a huge rivalry that everyone in OKC really began to focus on, mainly due to the opening round Game 6 heartbreaker that finished the Thunder’s first-ever postseason run of the OKC era. OKC fans really held a grudge on that one, as the “[expletive deleted] the Lakers!” t-shirts and banners appeared in full force the following season.
What’s even weirder is how this season has unfolded thus far. The Lakers are now so injury-riddled that they had a grand total of two guards available for last night’s game. One of them, Steve Blake, was even playing with essentially one arm due to an elbow injury. It’s actually gotten to the point where a lot of Thunder fans’ animosity towards the Lakers is beginning to turn into pure pity for their situation.
What’s even weirder is how the Trail Blazers have stepped up their game to the point where Thunder-Blazers is starting to look like the more enticing rivalry. Before the season started, the Thunder had beaten the Blazers in 8 consecutive games. This year’s season-series ended in a 2-2 split. And yet, the most surprising stat to take out of that series is how every team that won had to battle back from a double-digit deficit to claim the victory. If these two teams lock horns again in the playoffs, it could end up being the NBA Playoffs’ most competitive series.
You could tell the Thunder just weren’t really charged up for this one. The Lakers started the game on a 9-2 run, then the Thunder scored 6 unanswered points to pull within 1 (9-8) with 6:51 remaining in the 1st. Then the Lakers hit another run of 13-5 that brought their lead to 9 (22-13) with 2:51 to play in the 1st. The score was a mere 24-17 for the Lakers after 1. Yes, the Thunder managed 17 total points in the 1st quarter.
The Thunder had managed to pull within 4 (28-24) with 9:27 to play in the half, when the Lakers started yet another run, this one a 9-1 run that established a 12-point Laker lead (37-25) with 7:10 left on the clock. The Thunder then opened up a 14-7 run to pull within 5 (44-39) with 2:34 to go until halftime. Unfortunately for the Thunder, the Lakers were able to bring their lead back to 9 (54-45) at the break.
It looked like the Thunder were starting to get their act together in the 3rd, with both teams trading buckets throughout the vast majority of it. The Laker lead was still 10 (77-67), when the Blazers pulled off a mini-run of 5-0 to establish what would be their largest lead of the game (82-67) with less than a minute to play in the 3rd. It was around this point that Perry Jones was forced back to the locker room with a limp. He did not return. As promising a scorer as he is from the 5 position, most NBA analysts don’t expect his knees to hold up any longer than 4 years tops. Last night’s injury (which is still unspecified at this point) didn’t help that perception. The Thunder then pulled off their largest run yet, starting as a 5-0 run to end the 3rd, and pulling back within 10 (82-72) to start the 4th quarter.
The Lakers opened the 4th with a 3-pointer, and then subsequently disappeared, as the Thunder run that started at the end of the 3rd turned into a 25-5 run that established the Thunder’s first (and largest) lead of the game (92-87) with 5:45 to go in the 4th. The Lakers did not plan on going away quietly, however, as they used a 5-0 run to tie the game at 92-all with 4:53 to play. The Thunder had managed to pull their lead back to 5 (103-98) with 1:33 left in the game. Chris Kaman scored the next 4 points to bring the Lakers to within 1 (103-102). He was even fouled on his last made bucket where he shook Serge Ibaka straight out of his shoes, so he had a chance to hit the “and 1” to tie the game. Now, I’ve never known Scott Brooks to be an Xs and Os guy, but it is definitely beginning to look like where he likes to focus his strategy is on lineup tinkering, and mind games. As Kaman went to the line, Brooks basically pulled the NBA equivalent of “icing the kicker”, initiating a last-minute substitution to give Kaman extra time to think about his potential game-tying free throw. Kaman paced to half-court, and on his way back to the line was looking a bit irked when the substitution was taking longer than he expected. By the time Kaman finally took the free throw, the frustration had clearly taken its toll, as an over-adrenalized Kaman put too much on it, and bounced it off of the back of the rim and out. That forced the Lakers to foul, allowing a former Laker by the name of Derek Fisher 2 free throws to extend the lead to 3 (105-102). Blake was then forced to the line, and subsequently missed his first attempt. Although it looked as though he were intentionally trying to miss the second shot, it dropped, cutting the Thunder lead to 2 (105-103). When another intentional foul resulted in 2 made Kevin Durant free throws, the door on the Lakers’ comeback chances was finally slammed shut with 11.6 on the game clock, and the resulting 107-103 score would end up as the final. This win puts the Thunder at an NBA-best 43-12 for the season, while dropping the Lakers to an incredibly dismal 18-35. This marks the Lakers’ 7th consecutive home loss, which sets a new franchise record.
Durant had a 43-point, 12-rebound double-double last night, marking the 8th game this year he’s dropped 40+. That currently leads the NBA. He also now leads 2nd place Carmelo Anthony in terms of points scored by 361 points, marking the first time the leading scorer outpaced #2 by 350 or more in the past 41 seasons. To put that in perspective, the Sonics earned their lone NBA Championship within that span. Reggie Jackson was good for 16 points last night, as Ibaka dropped 10 of his own. Fisher and Jeremy Lamb combined for 23 points off of the Thunder bench (Fisher: 12, Lamb: 11).
All but two of the dressed players for the Lakers finished in double digits, seeing as there was no one to really sub in. Kaman had a 19-point, 10-rebound double-double, as Wesley Matthews chipped in 19 points of his own. Kendall Marshall played serious facilitator last night with his 17-assist, 14-point double double. Shawne Williams added 15 points, while Blake was able to manage 13 points with mostly one arm. Jordan Hill contributed 10 points off of the Lakers bench.
Now we head into NBA All-Star Weekend, and there isn’t another Thunder game on the schedule until they play host to the Heat on Feb. 20th. The first Thunder-Heat contest was one of the more odd ones this season, as the Heat jumped out to an insane 22-4 lead early, only to wind up losing by a score of 112-95. If the Heat can’t get it done in OKC, they’ll wind up losing the season series outright, as this is the final game of the season between these two squads. And the good news is that Russell Westbrook looks like he should be ready to go by tip-off, which is scheduled for 7pm CST. This game will actually be on the front-end of the TNT double-header for a change, and also will be nationally broadcast via ESPN Radio. Local radio coverage will be provided by WWLS The Sports Animal.