OKLAHOMA CITY -- It wasn't even midway through the first quarter, and the Los Angeles Lakers already trailed the Oklahoma City Thunder 13-4. Kobe Bryant was in the locker room getting an ulnar nerve contusion in his right elbow tended to. Dwight Howard needed to call timeout because that right shoulder of his was acting up again.
All of a sudden, that mighty exhale the Lakers were able to breathe Sunday with a last-second win to get back to .500 seemed like ages ago, as the life was being choked out of the streak of better basketball L.A. has been on for the past six weeks.
The tide kept coming in even after Bryant was able to score 30 points with his funny bone causing him pain and Howard was able to grab 16 rebounds in 37 minutes with his shoulder "bugging" him. The Thunder led by as many as 14 in the first quarter, 16 in the second and 18 in the third.
But the Lakers kept fighting. It was a five-point game with six minutes to go in the fourth.
"You go through ebbs and flows and runs in a game, and sometimes it feels like everything is against you," said Steve Nash, who shot just 1-for-7 in the first half but ended up tying his Lakers career high with 20 points by the end. "I couldn't make a shot, we had injuries and it's like, 'Oh, God, it's not our night.' But that's part of being a pro. You got to put that aside and just take the next possession, next possession and be professional. I thought we did a decent job of that tonight. We didn't have a great performance, but we stuck with it when a couple times it could have gone south and they could have gone up 20-25."
If the loss to the Thunder can serve any purpose for the Lakers over their final 21 games of the regular season, it should be a big, fat reminder that:
The Lakers aren't out of the woods yet. Even though the storm clouds seem to be clearing up with the Lakers having won 13 of 18 to get back to .500 on Sunday and the prospect of Pau Gasol returning within the next couple of weeks seeming very real, this is a precarious pursuit L.A. is trying to pull off. The Lakers play only eight guys as it is. One injury costing one of their core players a couple of games (Metta World Peace also was hit with the injury bug Tuesday, rolling his right ankle late in the game and requiring X-rays afterward that came back inconclusive), and their hill gets that must steeper to climb. Yes, Utah and Golden State have done the Lakers some favors by dropping off a bit, but those teams are still the ones in the driver's seat along with Houston, while L.A. is coming from behind.
On a more positive note, the Lakers have been through so much negativity so far this season -- a coach firing, major injuries, players squabbling, the death of their owner -- that they've learned to operate in survivor mode. The odds have been against them all season on a macro level, so if they find themselves in a hole in a single game on a micro level, they aren't about to fold up and accept that fate. "It's a challenge for all of us to take care of our bodies, wake up and know that we got our back against the wall," Earl Clark said. "We can't just be nonchalant with the games that we play. We got to take every possession like it's our last. I think everybody's got that mindset."
Part of that mindset is not patting themselves on the back for any near-misses or "good job, good effort"-type performances. It's maintaining their standard of expectations even when it's a tough task to meet them.
"You can always try to find positive things in anything, but for us right now, we got to get some wins," Bryant said.
Through that shared focus, the Lakers have indeed come together, as improbable a scenario as that seemed at times this season.
"Tonight was a tough night for us, but we have to look at the big picture in what we're trying to accomplish and we can't let this game take our spirits," Howard said. "We just got to play through it."
Figuratively and literally, as Howard, Bryant and World Peace to a man all vowed to play through their injuries Wednesday on the second night of their road back-to-back that Bryant deemed "crucial."
They've built a belief.
The Lakers are chasing the Thunder just as much as they're chasing the Rockets, Jazz and Warriors. This isn't just about making the playoffs; it's about doing something when they get there.
"I think if we get a chance to play these guys again [in the playoffs], I think mentally we know that we can compete with them, and if it happens, hopefully we're at full strength and we can have our full team out there," Antawn Jamison said. "I like the mindset of the team right now. We're still fighting."
They're not dead yet.