After every plot twist and dramatic turn in the Los Angeles Lakers’ soap opera of a season, perhaps their stars’ latest identity switches shouldn’t be all that shocking.
Kobe Bryant made all the big passes. Steve Nash scored important points down the stretch. Pau Gasol excelled off the bench as the new-look Lakers calmly maintained a fourth-quarter lead on the mighty Oklahoma City Thunder.
Bryant had 21 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds, Nash added seven of his 17 points in the final 5 1/2 minutes, and the Lakers held off the NBA-leading Thunder 105-96 Sunday.
Gasol scored 16 points in a reserve role as the Lakers picked up the most impressive victory of their thoroughly unimpressive season, coolly maintaining a small lead down the stretch of their second straight win after a four-game skid.
With Bryant taking on a playmaking role, Nash stepping up his offensive game and Dwight Howard preaching togetherness, the 19-25 Lakers are cautiously optimistic their latest reboot will work – and even the Thunder were impressed.
”We’re doing a good job right now of just being real with each other and holding each other accountable,” said Bryant, who had 14 assists and fell one rebound shy of a triple-double in each of the past two games. ”That makes a huge difference. I’m trying to evolve and find out what we need as a ballclub.”
So is everybody else with the Lakers, who had lost nine of their last 11 against the defending Western Conference champion Thunder, including four of five in the clubs’ second-round playoff series last spring and a blowout loss at Staples Center 16 days ago. The Lakers have strung together two solid games at home since a clear-the-air team meeting in Memphis last week.
”We’ve found something that works, that’s for sure, and something we can feel good about,” said Gasol, who played 36 minutes. ”I think the way we are playing, we can be very successful.”
Kevin Durant scored 35 points and Russell Westbrook had 17 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds for the road-weary Thunder, who finished their longest trip of the season at 3-3. Durant could sense the Lakers’ desperation in their fourth-quarter effort.
”The whole arena felt that way,” the three-time NBA scoring champion said. ”They needed a win. It was a must-win for them, and they came out and performed well. They were hitting shots, and they were doing a good job of protecting the paint. We missed some good shots as well. As a group, we all have to do our roles better. Every individual has to play their role to a T for us to win games, but we’ll be fine.”
Bryant and Westbrook briefly tangled in the third quarter in an exchange that earned a technical foul for Kobe. Both All-Star guards entered the fourth quarter needing just one rebound for a triple-double, but neither got it.
Westbrook missed his first eight shots and 12 of his first 13 before finding a rhythm, but the Lakers didn’t wilt down the stretch.
”The thought the execution at the end of the game by our team definitely could have been better,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. ”It’s something that we’re pretty good at, but a lot of that had to do with their team. They’re a physical team, and they were moving us around a little bit towards the end.”
Los Angeles took the lead with 6:15 to play on a jumper by Metta World Peace, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds. The Lakers nursed a small advantage in the final minutes, going up 101-95 on Gasol’s driving layup with 1:09 to play.
Bryant then hit a tough 19-foot jumper with 37 seconds left, and Westbrook couldn’t answer. Durant didn’t have a field goal in the final 6:39, scoring just seven points in the fourth quarter of Oklahoma City’s third loss in 11 games.
Oklahoma City routed the Lakers earlier this month, with Durant scoring 42 points and Westbrook adding 27 while Los Angeles played without Howard and Gasol.
Howard had just eight points and 10 rebounds this time out while fighting foul trouble and missing eight of his 10 free throws. Bryant and Nash led a passionate effort by the Lakers, whose season-long missteps and embarrassments have left them well out of the playoff picture heading into the second half of the season.
”I’m very excited to see our progress,” Howard said. ”We’re going to continue to work, continue to talk to each other. The biggest difference is we’re holding each other accountable for everything. We had a great talk in Memphis, and it’s carried over.”
NOTES:The clubs conclude their season series in Oklahoma City on March 5. … Lakers owner Jerry Buss celebrated his 79th birthday. The Basketball Hall of Famer hasn’t attended a game this season while dealing with health concerns. … Derek Fisher, the five-time champion Lakers guard who finished last season with the Thunder, watched from a courtside seat. Denzel Washington, Jay-Z, Alessandro Nivola, Horace Grant and baseball stars Matt Kemp, Vernon Wells and Michael Young also sat courtside.