LOS ANGELES -- Homecoming festivities were finished by tipoff, the tribute video and the standing ovation, the thank you notes in the stands and the bear hugs on the bench. When Derek Fisher appeared sufficiently moved, a sentimental night turned serious. The Lakers wanted to honor their former point guard, but more than that, they needed to beat his current team.
In the past two weeks, the Lakers swapped floor generals and benched All Stars, moves that jeopardized a fragile locker room and exposed a first-year coach. The actions were sold as part of the Lakers evolution, into a team that could compete with Oklahoma City in the Western Conference. On Thursday night at Staples Center, they were handed their litmus test.
Nothing has changed out West. Even with Ramon Sessions at point guard, Andrew Bynum dutifully positioned in the paint and Kobe Bryant generously allowed on the floor, the Lakers are no more contenders than they were a year ago, when Dallas swept them out of the second round with a hailstorm of 3-pointers. Reality sunk in Thursday night for those who branded the Lakers dangerous in the playoffs: They likely cannot beat the Thunder in a seven-game series, not this season, and probably not for several seasons to come.
The Lakers knew they were not as fast as the Thunder, but they saw Thursday that they also are not as physical, beaten to so many offensive rebounds and loose balls that their fans booed them before the midpoint of the fourth quarter. The Lakers were blown out of a game they badly wanted to win, and a game the Thunder didn't really need at all, 102-93. Bryant maintained the Lakers are capable of eventually ousting the Thunder, but acknowledged: "That's a formidable foe over there."
The Lakers could not guard Russell Westbrook when they had Fisher, and they still cannot guard him now that Fisher is gone. Westbrook finished with 36 points and one turnover, pounding his chest after jumpers and blowing on his index fingers as if they were smoking guns. But the stats, nor the gestures, fully illustrated the extent of Westbrook's demolition. He scored on spinning-lay-ups, long pull-ups and one-man fast breaks that left the Lakers in quicksand. "He's a problem," Bryant said.
Mike Brown entered this season in an untenable position, replacing the most successful coach in NBA history, and an offense that yielded 11 titles. His job grew more difficult this week, with Bynum chucking an ill-advised 3-pointer at Golden State, laughing on the bench and vowing to attempt more. Before the game, Brown discovered that someone created a fake Twitter account in his name, claiming that he would also bench Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama and Jesus. Now, Brown must keep the Lakers engaged, even after they witnessed how far they remain from the elite.
Bynum was the least of Brown's problems during Thursday's game, with 25 points, 13 rebounds and no 3-point attempts, but afterward he was less than diplomatic when asked about the video tribute to Fisher. "He was a great Laker, sad to see him go, but he's gone. Maybe (I) don't think they should have done it." Bryant was more sentimental, saying he couldn't bear to watch.
Fisher entered the game with just over two minutes left in the first quarter, to yet another ovation, and Bryant immediately posted up his old friend. Fisher tried to reach in and Bryant slapped his hands away. But Fisher did not relent, pouring in seven straight points, the most he's scored in a game since signing with Oklahoma City.
Fisher said he understood why the Lakers traded him, but was irritated they did not inform him of the possibility in advance, and resented the implication that he would have been disgruntled backing up Sessions. "It flies in the face of the type of player I've been," he said. Now, he is part of a second unit that helped underline the Lakers severe lack of depth. When Pau Gasol left with four fouls, so did the Lakers' chances. But they did not use Gasol's absence as an excuse. Rather, they sounded almost in awe of Westbrook, with no idea how to halt him. "We'll see them again down the road," Sessions said.
That's the trouble.