Friday, March 26, 2010 Updated: March 27, 2:38 PM ET
Lakers suffer a team loss
By Arash Markazi ESPNLosAngeles.com
OKLAHOMA CITY -- There is no greater indication of the Lakers' struggles than the sight of Kobe Bryant slapping something. Whether it's his hands, the floor, the folding chair beside him, the stack of towels behind him, it's never a good sign. During the Lakers' 91-75 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Bryant was especially slap-happy.
Bryant continued to slap everything around him because the Thunder continuously slapped, pried, pulled, poked and stole the ball away from him, forcing Bryant to turn the ball over nine times, eight in the first half, in a game the Lakers never led and were never in.
For the past two days, Phil Jackson ran the Lakers through ball-control drills and stressed the importance of not committing turnovers against a Thunder team that feeds off transition baskets and ranks fifth in the league in defensive efficiency.
None of it mattered Friday as the Lakers turned the ball over 18 times, leading to 21 points by the Thunder. At one point in the second quarter during a timeout, Bryant asked for the basketball from referee Ron Garretson and began to dribble it and massage it and looked at it as if there was something wrong with the ball or him. It must have been the latter because soon after Bryant gave the ball back and the game resumed, he turned it over again as he slipped on the floor and proceeded to slap the court in disgust.
"Kobe had nine turnovers and you can't do that," Jackson said. "You can't have a game like that and expect to have success especially in an isolated spot where there's going to be run-outs. We talked about that as a team. We couldn't stand around and watch them play basketball and expect to beat this club."
It looked as if the Lakers were moving in slow motion for much of the game while the younger Thunder players were constantly in fast-forward, racing past the Lakers for breakaway dunks and easy transition baskets. The Thunder led by as many as 33 points in the fourth quarter and took a 21-9 lead less than eight minutes into the game.
It was a frustrating night for Kobe Bryant, who had nine turnovers and only 11 points.
The Lakers looked nothing like the team that outscored the San Antonio Spurs 51-35 in the second half of their comeback win in San Antonio. While that was the Lakers' best defensive game of the season, Friday night's loss was perhaps their worst in two years.
"It's part of an unknown team and an unknown quantity," Jackson said of playing the Thunder. "We know what San Antonio is and we know what they're going to do and there's sort of a dance we do between us, and this is a young team with a lot of energy and they're somebody we're not aware of. We haven't seen them in four months."
So while the Lakers were out there doing the waltz, the Thunder were doing the John Wall Dance around them and making them look as silly as grandparents trying to keep up.
"I don't even know what happened," Ron Artest said after the game, looking like a boxer still recovering from a knockout punch. "What's our record? How many games we got left? I'm just looking forward to tomorrow. I don't even know what happened. What did Ronald Reagan say that one time? I don't recall."
Artest might not know the Lakers' record or how many games are left in the season, but it's good to know he can still cite Reagan quotes with the best of them.
If only the Lakers were as efficient in guarding Russell Westbrook, who scored 23 points on 10-for-13 shooting, and drained nearly all of his baskets on pull-up jumpers on the corners of the free throw line.
"I tried everybody but Sasha [Vujacic] in the guard core on him, so we tried to match and see what we could get done," Jackson said. "He got in the zone in the elbows and that's his spot."
Vujacic might have gotten a chance in the fourth quarter, when the game was already in hand, had he not gotten into a heated argument with assistant coach Brian Shaw. With 9:12 left, Shaw was yelling at Vujacic and pointed his finger in Vujacic's face, prompting Vujacic to point his finger back in Shaw's face. Artest and Jordan Farmar quickly broke up the two, but it would be the end of Vujacic's night as he played only 2:48 of the fourth quarter. Even Adam Morrison, who played 9:48 and scored six points, got more run than that.
The Lakers waved the proverbial white flag with 2:48 left in the third quarter when Bryant, who scored 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting, and Pau Gasol, who scored nine points on 3-for-10 shooting, were taken out of the game for good. The team opened up the fourth quarter with Artest, Vujacic, Farmar, Josh Powell and D.J. Mbenga on the floor.
The postgame stat sheet read like a bad Lakers history lesson. It was only the second wire-to-wire loss of the season for the Lakers (the other was during a 107-98 loss to Portland on Jan. 8). The Lakers scored their fewest points in the first half (34) and through three quarters (47) and nearly broke the Los Angeles franchise records for fewest points in a game (70, set in 2002) and for fewest assists (they finished with seven, one more than the record low of six set in 1964).
"Kobe wasn't really himself tonight and Pau was soft inside," Jackson said. "We were not alert in situations I thought we had opportunities and muffed them when we turned the ball over and they ran out."
Bryant essentially separated himself from the team as the game concluded, sitting at the end of the bench, two seats removed from the rest of the team, with his arms folded and a fitting white towel hanging around his neck.
After the game, Bryant was the last player to leave the locker room and promised the team would not perform that way in the postseason, which is still three weeks away.
"When the playoffs start it's a different situation," he said. "I'll feel better when the playoffs come around. We want to play better. There are things we have to do and shore up and I know what we can do and I know what our identity is. That's the part I don't want to be second-guessing."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.