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Friday, December 13, 2013
Lakers shuffle lineup again; Bryant to guard Westbrook

By Dave McMenamin

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The sun rises in the East, water is wet and Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni tinkers with his starting lineup.

The Lakers will trot out their 10th different starting unit through their first 22 games when they play the Oklahoma City Thunder by going with Kobe Bryant, Jodie Meeks, Wes Johnson, Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol to tip things off, D'Antoni said after shootaround Friday.

"We'll see how it goes," D'Antoni said. "Just trying to pack the paint up a little bit and try to get a little bit more of a defensive presence inside."

The Lakers are second to last in the league in points in the paint allowed, giving up an average of 47.7 points per game. In L.A.'s last game, a 114-108 loss to the Phoenix Suns, nearly half of the points it gave up (56) were in the paint.

D'Antoni's hand was forced into the lineup change in this instance because of Steve Blake's elbow injury, which moved Bryant from the starting small forward to the starting point guard and then Johnson plugged in the spot vacated in the front court. D'Antoni made another change, however, benching the floor-spreading Shawne Williams in favor of the paint-packing Hill.

D'Antoni said he still plans to keep Bryant in the 24-28 minute range in part because the Thunder game kicks off a four-games-in-five-nights stretch for L.A. As much as the point guard assignment will be a challenge for Bryant offensively, as he has averaged just 3.5 assists against 5.5 turnovers in his first two games back from his Achilles injury, defense could pose the even bigger problem for him as he will be matched up with Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook "off and on" according to D'Antoni.

"It's asking a lot but he's smart and if you're not on him, then you're on (Kevin) Durant or Jodie has to guard Westbrook," D'Antoni said of the 35-year-old Bryant checking the 25-year-old Westbrook. "I trust Kobe more than the normal person to just figure it out. We'll see. It doesn't mean it's going to stay that way all the time, but Kobe will do a good job. He'll surprise us."

Westbrook is averaging 21.2 points, 6.4 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game after undergoing minor knee surgery during training camp.

D'Antoni said it will be a team effort, beyond Bryant, to try to stop the three-time All-Star.

"If we do what we're supposed to do and close the paint down and make him take contested 2s, that's what we want to do against Westbrook," D'Antoni said. "We want to do the same against everybody. He will get out in transition some so the biggest thing is not turning the ball over, not letting him run."

As for Bryant's individual defense in his short time back, D'Antoni said it's a work in progress.

"Getting there," D'Antoni said. "He's smart. He'll be able to do a lot of things we do, but you still have to have legs, you still have to have all of that. I think he'll work through that and he'll get there."