By Ben Golliver
The Thunder defeated the Lakers 122-105 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, improving to 44-16 on the season. The Lakers dropped to 30-31.
• The Thunder's superiority over the Lakers in talent and depth affords them the opportunity of winning matchups between the two teams in all sorts of ways. Including its 2012 playoff-series victory, Oklahoma City is 9-3 against Los Angeles since the beginning of the 2011-12 season, grinding out low-scoring games against Mike Brown teams and blowing out Mike D'Antoni's Lakers in shootouts. With athletic star players at key positions and the ability to go big, go small or go medium, depending on matchups, the Thunder boast the versatility and adaptability that are crucial characteristics of championship contenders.
With that said, the Thunder who showed up on Thursday night were unlike any other Thunder team we've seen in one major way: They took care of the basketball at a record level. Oklahoma City was charged with just two turnovers in the 48-minute game. Had Russell Westbrook not been dinged for a travel in the fourth quarter, the Thunder would have set an NBA record for fewest turnovers in a game. Instead, OKC set season and franchise records and matched the NBA's all-time mark with two turnovers.
Remember, protecting the basketball was arguably Oklahoma City's biggest weakness. The Thunder entered the game tied for fourth in the league with 930 turnovers, trailing only the Rockets, Pistons and Warriors. Their 14.7 turnover percentage -- that is, the number of turnovers they commit per 100 possessions -- tied for last with the Rockets. That the Thunder possess the NBA's second-best offensive efficiency while also being so loose with the ball is impressive and it speaks to the aggressive and relentless nature of their attack. What happens when the Thunder combine their scoring efficiency with total control? Seventy-one points on 50 shots at halftime on Tuesday. That's nearly inconceivable.
Just how out of line was this turnover result with Oklahoma City's standard? Westbrook alone averages 3.6 turnovers per game, No. 6 in the league, and he's registered at least two turnovers in 49 of Oklahoma City's 60 games this season. Kevin Durant is right behind him at No. 7, averaging 3.3 turnovers. Durant has recorded at least two turnovers by himself in 52 games. As a team, Oklahoma City had committed fewer than 10 turnovers only four times before Tuesday night.
There's a lot of luck with loose balls, deflections and 50/50 whistles not getting blown that contributes to this accomplishment. It also certainly helped that the Lakers are a below-average defensive team with no ability to apply meaningful ball pressure, especially with Kobe Bryant nursing a bum elbow (see below). Indeed, the Lakers entered the game ranked No. 29 in opponent turnover percentage, forcing turnovers on just 12.2 out of 100 possessions. Still, none of that should take away from what was a restrained massacre, the likes of which we haven't seen previously from these Thunder.
• Westbrook's dominance over the Lakers has reached broken-record status. Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake or anyone else can't contain his quickness and explosiveness off the dribble. He finished with a game-high 37 points (on 15-for-29 shooting) and added 10 rebounds, five assists and two steals. Incredibly, all 15 of Westbrook's field goals came from 15 feet or in and nine of them came from within two feet. Westbrook's 20 points in the paint nearly matched the Lakers' entire team (22).
That comparison underscores just what a non-factor Dwight Howard was in this game. Not only did he fail to make an imprint on offense, where he finished with six points (on 1-for-7 shooting,) but Howard also didn't block a shot or register a steal on the other end. Howard is battling a shoulder injury and didn't look particularly healthy, but he logged 37 minutes and played for much of the fourth quarter.
With Howard ineffective and without the Lakers having any interior depth behind him, it was open season for Westbrook and fellow point guard Reggie Jackson to attack at will. Jackson played just 13 minutes, but he showed more than a few flashes of why Eric Maynor was dumped for a trade exception at the deadline, embarrassing the Lakers' perimeter defenders off the dribble and scoring five baskets at the rim, including one sneaky dunk that was Westbrook-esque. Jackson finished with 10 points (on 5-for-7 shooting).
• Bryant left the game during the first quarter with an ulnar nerve contusion in his right arm. Bryant first showed pain after Thabo Sefolosha applied pressure defense in the game's opening moments. He departed a few minutes later after committing a turnover on a drive. Bryant was clearly in pain and he attempted to keep his arm straight whenever possible, using his left hand to remove his shooting shirt, drink a Gatorade and launch a runner in the key. The Lakers initially said Bryant was "questionable" to return but he re-entered the game later in the first quarter wearing a pad on his elbow, and he received further treatment at halftime.
"I just got popped right on that button," Bryant said in a postgame interview, adding that he was in "a lot of pain."
Here's video of the sequence that saw Bryant depart in the first quarter.
Bryant finished with a team-high 30 points on 8-for-19 shooting in 39 minutes. His ability to get to the free-throw line and sink three three-pointers kept L.A. hanging around until the Thunder launched an 11-0 run to close out the game. The Lakers' schedule and playoff positioning aren't particularly conducive to getting Bryant time off for rest. L.A. visits New Orleans on Wednesday and then plays seven games in the following 12 days. One reason The Point Forward wasn't sold on the Lakers' ability to make the playoffs was that their margin for error when it comes to losing streaks and injuries is virtually nil, given that they're 2½ games out of the playoff picture as they chase two teams, Houston and Utah, that have played fairly well over the last six weeks. The already-depleted Lakers simply can't manage without Bryant under any circumstances. The good news: Bryant's pain threshold is legendary, and three of the Lakers' next four games come against teams that project to make the lottery.