By Ben Golliver
The Thunder broke out to a 19-point lead and held off a desperate flourish to defeat the Lakers 114-108 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City on Friday night. The Thunder won their seventh consecutive game and improved to 16-4, tops in the Northwest Division. The Lakers, who got 35 points from Kobe Bryant, dropped to 9-11 overall and 2-6 on the road. [RECAP | BOX SCORE]
• Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook is so talented in so many ways that things start to feel a bit unfair when he's knocking down three-pointers. To date, that's been perhaps his biggest Achilles heel. He hasn't missed a game in his career due to injury; he can create off the dribble and play above the rim; he's added a dependable mid-range jumper; his turnovers are usually understandable and the result of applying constant pressure to a defense; and he works hard on the defensive end, forcing turnovers. In recent years, he's made better late-game decisions and worked through the alpha dog balancing act with fellow All-Star Kevin Durant.
Entering Friday, he was shooting a career-best 33.8 percent from three-point range, a respectable figure. Against the Lakers, he knocked down a career-high five-three-pointers, all in the first half, when he scored 27 points. He finished with 33 points and eight assists. Westbrook seemingly couldn't miss during the first two periods and generally operated as if Lakers guard Chris Duhon was invisible. He capped the scoring run with a four-point play with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter, one he celebrated with a somersault after Duhon knocked him to the ground during his follow-through. (Watch his gymnastics work here.)
None of it was all that surprising. Westbrook averaged 25.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists against the Lakers in last year's playoffs and those numbers were actually deflated by off nights in Games 3 and 4. This was more like Game 2 Westbrook, the one who scored 37 points and couldn't be stopped. The Lakers, and their fans, didn't enjoy that show the first time and Friday night, given L.A.'s tumultuous start and injuries to Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, was bitter too.
• Friday reinforced a takeaway point from the 2012 playoff series between these two teams: The Thunder are just a nightmare matchup in every possible way for Los Angeles, even with its new pieces. Oklahoma City has quality answers for L.A.'s strengths and problem-posing questions for their weaknesses.
Let's start with the Lakers' strengths.
The Thunder have three looks to throw at Bryant. They can start with proven stopper Thabo Sefolosha, who has the the discipline, size and quickness to make Bryant work. They can go small with Westbrook, who can pressure Bryant's dribble and overplay him when he's off the ball, forcing Bryant to expend extra energy. In certain situations, they can go big, using Durant and his length to defend Bryant jumpers in half-court, isolation situations.
The Thunder also have plenty of bodies to throw at Dwight Howard. Kendrick Perkins, at this point, has the bulk and personality to frustrate Howard. Nick Collison has the technique and charge-taking abilities to play real minutes in a pinch. Reserve center Hasheem Thabeet, playing the best ball of his life, can offer six fouls. Serge Ibaka, the league's premier shot-blocker, is there to help protect the rim and provide help defense. Nothing is coming easy for Howard and the Thunder's guards are quick to supply driving help defense as well. If Howard is going to go off, he'll have to work for every point.
A healthy Nash under coach Mike D'Antoni would clearly represent a strength too. And yet, wouldn't the Thunder welcome an up-and-down shootout with the Lakers? The Thunder are second in points scored per possession, the same rank they had last season. In 2011-12, they knocked off the No. 1 offense, the Spurs, with surprising ease given how well San Antonio had played entering the postseason. The Thunder hold the edge in athleticism and dynamic open-court finishing and they also happen to be the No. 1 three-point-shooting team in the league. How, exactly, does a run-and-gun game favor the Lakers?
Lastly, the Lakers do have significant veteran guile and experience, thanks to the championship-winning Bryant/Gasol/Metta World Peace trio and Howard, who advanced to the 2009 Finals with the Magic. The Thunder have stood up to the pressure and the mind games in each of the last two postseasons, winning games in blowout fashion and at the buzzer. Durant is at least Bryant's equal with the game on the line. A better regular-season record, a safe assumption this season, and a great home-court advantage serve as tiebreakers in Oklahoma City's favor.
• The Lakers, at least right now, have a long list of weaknesses that the Thunder are almost perfectly designed to exploit.
The Lakers, even when they get Nash and reserve point guard Steve Blake healthy, aren't equipped to defend the point of attack very well. Westbrook is perhaps the most terrifying player in the league off the dribble right now. Los Angeles' team defensive rotations also need work. It's early, and it's very possible that the effort level will pick up as the postseason approaches, but Durant, Kevin Martin, Sefolosha and even reserve guard Eric Maynor are all capable of stretching a defense to its breaking point from the perimeter.
Meanwhile, Durant, who finished with a game-high 36 points and nine rebounds, is a nightmare cover for the Lakers. He averaged 26.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 51.6 percent in last year's Western Conference semifinals. The Lakers don't have the length, size and depth to disrupt him. It's unclear whether anyone in the NBA, save the Heat, has enough on these counts.
Speaking of depth, that's the Lakers' bugaboo. Bench scoring isn't a particular strength of the Thunder, who rely heavily on Durant and Westbrook, but it's a major weakness for the Lakers, who rank No. 29 in the league in bench scoring. Martin, who averages 15.6 points in a sixth-man role, is far more dependable than any of the Lakers' reserves and he provides scoring at a position from which the Thunder can use it. The Lakers' best scoring reserve, Antawn Jamison, requires minutes that are usually filled by players, either Gasol or Howard, thought of as scorers too. Finally, there's the continuity factor. The biggest question with the Lakers is how quickly they can put the pieces together and whether they can develop championship-level chemistry with all the talent they've assembled. The Thunder have no such problems. Even with the surprising trade of James Harden, Oklahoma City is rolling early this season, in part because everyone else who played a major role in last year's rotation is back. Martin plugged in smoothly and the rest of the machine just kept right on rolling. It will take a similar smooth-running, no-drama operation to eliminate the Thunder this season. The Heat, Spurs and Grizzlies, maybe, represent real threats. That's probably it.