Lakers' dominance in West fading
L.A. tries to keep the flame alive, while the Thunder emerges as the team to beat
LOS ANGELES -- It's early still. Ramon Sessions is still learning his way around Los Angeles. Andrew Bynum is still maturing -- you hope -- into the leading role he must play for the Los Angeles Lakers now. Derek Fisher is still shopping for a new house in Oklahoma City.
So no, the Oklahoma City Thunder's 102-93 win over the Lakers on Thursday night doesn't portend anything definitive or meaningful if these teams meet down the line, deep in the Western Conference playoffs.
But it does mean something. Or rather, it should've meant more to the Lakers than it appeared to.
The Lakers, last we checked, are the team with something to prove. The team in third place in the Western Conference looking up at both the San Antonio Spurs and Thunder. The team that had to sacrifice championship experience and character for speed and athleticism when it acquired Sessions and sacrificed Fisher at the trade deadline two weeks ago.
But instead of showing the upstart Thunder that the road to the NBA Finals still has to go through L.A., the Lakers reminded the Thunder and the rest of the NBA of something that has become all too clear this season -- they haven't figured this out yet.
"At times we look pretty good and at times we don't," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "We're still trying to find our way with the addition of Sessions in the starting group."
A week ago it seemed as if Sessions might be the missing piece and that Bynum was ready to assume a leadership mantle.
But that shot of adrenaline seems to have passed right through the Lakers' system and now the team seems to be right back to the middling, frustrated place it was before the trade deadline.
The difference is that now, on March 29, there are no moves to be made and far less season left to work it out.
"I don't think whether we win or lose it weighs into whether we're ready or we've arrived," Brown said before the game.
"If we beat Oklahoma City, does that mean we're the best team in the West? If we lose, does that mean we can't beat them come playoff time? I don't believe in that kind of stuff."
All of that's true. But of course all of that sounds a lot better better before a game you still have a chance to win.
Afterward, Brown wasn't as breezy.
"To give up the buckets we did in the third quarter the way we did," Brown said of the Thunder's outscoring the Lakers 34-19 in the quarter, "it was disappointing to watch.
"Obviously they picked up their intensity and their sense of urgency and they played with a physicality in the third quarter that they knew was to their advantage. They said, 'We're coming out and we're going to take it right at 'em.' "
Kobe Bryant was even more direct. Asked why the Thunder seemed to have so much more energy in the third than the Lakers, Bryant grinned and said "Because they're younger and they have more of it [energy] than we do."
Bryant normally is being sarcastic when he says things like that. This time it didn't seem he was. This Thunder team is a problem for the Lakers and he knows it.
Yes, they're younger and faster than the Lakers, but that's not why. That kind of stuff can be overcome by strategy, skill and execution.
No, this Thunder team is a problem because it's not afraid of the Lakers.
Did you see the way James Harden held out three fingers after draining a 3-pointer in front of Bryant in the first quarter? Or the way Russell Westbrook preened for the crowd, then blew on his fingers and put them in an imaginary holster after hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to close out his blistering 17-point third quarter?
The Thunder is coming right at the Lakers now. Ferociously, but from a place of respect. While the rest of the Western Conference is figuring out how to beat the Thunder, the Thunder is still measuring itself against the Lakers.
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"Those guys are champions, you can't look past that no matter what," Durant said of the Lakers. "Dallas won it last year, of course you gotta go through them. But these guys are champions, just that history means a lot. It still means a lot.
"We haven't done anything. Nothing close to what the Lakers have done."
It's a strange place for the Lakers to be: measuring themselves against a team that is doing the same to them.
But it's where they are now. Neither favorites, nor underdogs. An aging champion with something left, but maybe not enough.
"Playing against those kind of teams is always exciting," Bryant said. "You get a chance to kind of measure yourself and see where you're at. Against Miami, we passed the test. This one we failed."
Wait, did Kobe Bryant just say the Lakers, the team that gets every other team's best shot every night, were measuring themselves against the Thunder?
"Times change," he said, now clearly running with the idea of casting his team as an underdog. "We were in that position a couple years back where we had to struggle, we had to scratch and claw for those positions and got to the playoffs and won a championship."
But all is not settled yet. It's early still. Sessions is still working his way in. Bynum is still learning and maturing. There's another month left in the season.
"Last year, when we played Dallas I think we beat them every time in the regular season, right?" Bryant said. "So it's all about how teams continue to improve through the regular season."
The Lakers still need to do a lot of that.