Struggling Lakers show there's a lack of toughness in Tinseltown
LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers showed Kendrick Perkins, all right.
The bitter big man had called Pau Gasol soft leading up to this Lakers-Thunder affair, sparking a chorus of indignation from the two-time defending champions whose resolve has been mighty for so long now. You knock one, you knock them all, and so they promised to deliver a reminder full of grit and gusto come tip-off time.
There was none of that when it mattered most Sunday night at Staples Center, where the Lakers lost their fifth straight game for the first time in more than four years and made it official that they've lost their way in the grander sense as well. Oklahoma City's 120-106 win came down to a stunning final stretch, with the Thunder scoring 17 points to L.A.'s two in the last three minutes, 10 seconds while bewilderment washed over the Lakers and their disapproving home crowd.
Now, remarkably, Kobe Bryant and Co. find themselves tied with Dallas for the second seed in the Western Conference, although they hold the tiebreaker against the Mavericks as division winners. Only Tuesday's home game against San Antonio and a Wednesday game at Sacramento remain, with the fourth-place Thunder just one game behind them as well.
"I'm surprised," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We were complacent I think a little bit."
A question of rising pressure was then posed.
"Yes," Jackson agreed. "I don't know [the impact]. It's just what you're doing now. The measure of success is what you've just recently accomplished. It's not what you accomplished in the past or what you did post-All-Star break. Right now, we're back in the middle of the pack playing basketball."
This is their new way, apparently, an entirely different version than the one that started 17-1 after the break. No fight, unless you count the occasional Ron Artest elbow or always-reliable Kobe surge. And no fear among their opponents, who have been sniffing more blood with every recent defeat.
Losses to Denver, Utah, Golden State and Portland were about offensive breakdowns, with the Lakers averaging just 87 points in that stretch and the message consistent that the line would be walked between urgency and panic. This was something different, with the Thunder giving the Lakers a powerful preview of what these playoffs will hold despite the scoring woes being temporarily fixed.
This is no time to look meek if you're the Lakers, not with the league's parity at historical levels. Yet while Russell Westbrook was pounding his chest and grinning at the Lakers' faithful, while Kevin Durant was rolling his eyes at the silly late fouls that only gave the Thunder more time for a celebration, the Lakers did little to shed the tag that Perkins had tried to apply.
Only the basketball gods know if it was sheer coincidence, but the late collapse coincided almost perfectly with Gasol's weakest moments. With less than two minutes remaining, Westbrook ripped the ball from the accused forward's hands on the wing and dashed to the other end of the floor. Gasol, meanwhile, chose to spend those crucial seconds rubbing his elbow and complaining to a nearby official that he had been fouled.
Not long after, a loose ball rolled around in the paint and three bodies hit the floor in pursuit. Gasol's was not one, and the momentum surge that was sparked by the sheer physicality continued as Westbrook hit a driving layup and finished a three-point play. Gasol finished with 26 points, but his four rebounds were added evidence to his shortcomings of grit.
Strangely, the Lakers kept fouling long after the outcome was decided. And the Thunder just kept smiling, soaking up their only win of the season over the team that eliminated them from the first-round playoff series last May.
Perkins, the playoff veteran who was traded from Boston to Oklahoma City in February and thus deemed the playoff difference-maker for the young and upstart Thunder, wasn't the difference-maker in the box score. He finished with just two points, five rebounds and one blocked shot in 29 minutes. But he set the physical tone in the first half, clearly looking to share the hurt he still holds from his injury absence in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
He had Bryant in a head lock, shared elbows with Artest and added an edge for which the Thunder have not been known. But it was mostly early theater compared to the end.
The final tally of the fourth quarter was a sight to behold: nine Lakers turnovers after they had just one in the first three quarters, and a 32-16 Thunder edge. It was more than enough to make Bryant seethe afterward, when he took nearly an hour before addressing the media. With his feet soaked in ice, he steered clear of his teammates and reporters for the betterment of all involved.
"I got changed, and then went in the training room, and put ice down," said Bryant, whose 31 points matched Durant's total and bested Westbrook's 26. "I didn't want to redecorate the walls in here, so I made the effort to just go in the training room and keep to myself."
Yes, these Lakers have been here before, most recently when they lost seven of their final 11 games in 2009-10 before winning it all yet again. But it's not a blueprint worth following again. The hard way is even harder, of course, when you're playing soft.