Photo by AP/Mark J. Terrill

Thunder Defeat Lakers, Gain Confidence For Playoffs

It’s official. The Oklahoma City Thunder have arrived.

Despite the fact that most Laker fans will blow off this loss like it’s not a big deal (which in the grand scheme of things it really isn’t), the truth is the implications of the game will affect the Lakers down the road.

Photo by AP/Mark J. Terrill

After losing 14 of 15  — and 11 straight — in L.A., the Thunder finally struck back. This was a perfect case of the time when the little brother finally retaliates against the older brother, knocking him down.

On Sunday night, the Thunder knocked down the Lakers, and despite repeatedly getting back up, Oklahoma City’s final blow was just too much to overcome.

Now, before we take a look into the box score, let’s examine some outside factors.

First, L.A.’s bench is in a major slump. Heading into the game, the only player consistent player of late has been Lamar Odom. Other than that? Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown have basically been hit-or-miss.

On that note, the Lakers offense as a whole has been terrible amidst their four (now five) game losing streak. Their defense had been rock-solid heading into tonight’s game, holding opponents to an impressive 92.3 points per game.

Well, throw all of that out the window. L.A.’s defense was putrid, to say the least. The Thunder managed 120 points (the third highest L.A. has given up all season, second highest in regulation) on 40-for-72 shooting (55.6%)! Oklahoma City is a talented team offensively, no doubt about it, but they literally toyed with L.A.

Russell Westbrook went in beast mode (as he always does against L.A) and threw up a line of 26 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals. Regardless of who was guarding him, Westbrook was able to get into the lane, finishing strong with lay-ups and floaters. If the Lakers sagged off him, he pulled up for the long jumper or in tonight’s case, long three-pointers (he hit 3 of them).

But don’t forget, Westbrook is the Thunder’s second best player. Kevin Durant is still on the team, if my memory doesn’t fail me.

Ever since L.A. aquired Ron Artest, the Lakers have had few problems containing Durant. With Artest’s strength, physicality, toughness and ability to angle off Durant’s path to the basket, Ron-Ron has usually forced Durantula into lines of 8-for-24 or 10-for-27.

Not tonight, though. KD went off, torching L.A. for 31 points on an amazingly efficient 11-for-15 shooting. Although Artest did not play Durant as well as he normally does, KD hit impossible shot after impossible shot.

The only positive for L.A.? Durant was forced into 5 turnovers, which obviously is a testament to Artest’s quick swipes at the ball.

Yet unlike last year, this team isn’t a two-and-a-half headed beast (KD, Westbrook, and half of Jeff Green). It has multiple heads.

Serge Ibaka had 15 points and 3 blocks. James Harden chimed in with his usual 16 points off the pine.

And then there was Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder’s main in-season addition didn’t have an impressive stat-line (2 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 block), but his impact did not go unnoticed (at least by me).

By replacing Nenad Krstic‘s soft(er) body with Perkins, the Thunder gained many noticeable advantages. Perkins is a much better off-the-ball screen setter, and it was evident today. His (illegal) screens allowed Durant to free himself from Artest and Barnes, giving KD constantly wide-open looks.

Additionally, Perkins was able to guard Andrew Bynum with single-coverage, a MAJOR asset for the Thunder. Normally, Bynum would have his way with the thinner and smaller Thunder front-court.  Bynum still managed 12 points and 13 rebounds, yet he did so on a surprisingly inefficient 4-for-9 shooting. That was mostly due in part to Perkins size, strength and length.

Lastly, was Perkins’ toughness and swag. Perkins doesn’t back down from anyone. He’s probably the “baddest” player in the league. When he’s on the court, he will literally do anything he can to gain an advantage. Quite simply, he’s a dirty player.

Just take a look at the 2nd quarter, when he managed to put Kobe Bryant in a headlock at the free-throw line. Bryant shoved Perkins, who responded with a shove back. The two were issued double-techs, resulting in Bryant’s 15th of the season.

Yet that was the difference in the game. Yes, the LakeShow responded with a 7-0 run, and 20-11 overall, but the fact that the Thunder fought back was too much for L.A. to handle. Besides Perkins, Ibaka and Durant developed some swag for themselves, dishing out several hard fouls.

But L.A. should have known that. They’ve seen the Thunder play recently (or so I hope). They know how Perkins plays. And even with all of that, they still had a chance to win. Don’t let the 14 points fool you, the game was somewhat closer.

Pau Gasol, who was labeled “soft” by Perkins in an issue of ESPN The Magazine last month, had 26 points on 10-for-16 shooting. The Black Swan was aggressive, attacking the basket relentlessly, resulting in numerous fouls and lay-ups against the 7’5+ wingspan of Ibaka.

Bryant had 31 points on 10-for-19 shooting, 9-for-10 from the charity stripe, and chipped in 4 assists, 4 boards and 3 steals. Even Derek Fisher had a respectable game, putting up 7 points, 4 assists and 3 steals.

And then there was the bench. A combined 20 points in 73 minutes on 7-for-19 shooting. Odom had 7 points and 3 rebounds. Brown and Barnes combined to shoot 1-for-7. Blake actually managed to shoot 3-for-3 from beyond the arc, one of his better shooting performances in recent play.

But what really killed L.A.? Their turnovers. They only had one through the first three quarters, so I assume their nine fourth quarter turnovers were somewhat inevitable due to the law of averages. At the same time, nine turnovers in any quarter is unjustifiable.

Moving forward, this game has slight implications for L.A. They are now in dead-even tie with the Dallas Mavericks for 2nd place in the West. They also only lead the Thunder by one game. Fortunately for the Lakers, they own the tiebreakers against both teams.

Therefore, L.A. controls its own destiny. If they win out, they will lock up the two-seed. But that won’t be an easy task. Next up is San Antonio. While some speculate the Spurs will rest their starters to prevent a possible second round match-up with L.A., I’m not too sure. The Spurs are still battling the Bulls for the top record overall, and I don’t see why they would just give it up.

After the battle against the Spurs, L.A. will head to Sacramento, to take on the Kings in what seems to be their last game in Sacramento ever. If you don’t think Sacramento will be motivated, you have another thing coming. Now obviously L.A. has far superior talent, but with the right motivation in front of a sold-out home crowd, who knows what will happen.

All in all, tonight’s game doesn’t mean too mention… yet. If L.A. loses once more, their chances of attaining the two-seed will significantly decrease. For all intents and purposes, the Lakers could even lose their seeding to the Thunder.

Plus, the Lakers have now lost 5 games in a row, a feat they haven’t achieved (in a bad way) since the pre-Gasol era in ’06-’07.

So to recap, tonight the Thunder punched back and gained confidence. Confidence grows like a seed, and when planted right, can have devastating effects. Oklahoma City now has confidence that they can win in Staples Center. While that may not end up changing anything, it will be a factor next time they meet in L.A. And all of this because of dumb trade made at the deadline.

To reach Jovan, e-mail him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @JovanBuha.

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Tags: Andrew Bynum Derek Fisher Kobe Bryant Lamar Odom Los Angeles Lakers Matt Barnes Pau Gasol Ron Artest Steve Blake

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