Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder have earned the Los Angeles Lakers’ respect and attention as a prime contender for their NBA title.
If Durant and Westbrook had managed to hit even a few late 3-pointers Monday night, they finally might have earned their first road win over the Lakers since before their franchise left Seattle.
Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant scored 21 points apiece, and the Lakers held off the Thunder 101-94 for their eighth win in nine games.
Although Bryant missed three free throws in the final minute, the Lakers hung on for their 11th straight win over Oklahoma City at Staples Center, including three wins during last season’s highly competitive first-round playoff series.
Lamar Odom had 16 points and Derek Fisher scored a season-high 15 for the Lakers in the clubs’ first meeting since Los Angeles sent home the eighth-seeded Thunder in six games.
"We don’t look at them as kids any more," Odom said. "This team pushed us last year. We have to play them hard, or else they can stick it to you when it counts. They’re still one of the best teams in the league. We respect them."
Westbrook had 32 points and 12 assists, and he led a late run aided by those three straight misses by Bryant. But Westbrook missed two free throws of his own with 21.4 seconds left before airballing a 3-point attempt.
Durant had 24 points on 8-of-24 shooting for the Thunder, whose four-game winning streak ended. The Thunder were undone by 2-for-22 shooting from the 3-point line, including a 1-for-8 effort by Durant, who missed 14 of 18 shots in the final three quarters.
"It’s very tough, because we work on that a lot," Durant said. "We got some good looks, but we just couldn’t make them. That’s the name of the game. We’ve got to continue to work at it, and we can’t get down on ourselves. We’ve got to keep our heads up and learn from our mistakes. We’re maturing and growing up as a team, and we know what it takes to win."
One day after the Lakers wilted in the fourth quarter of a streak-snapping loss to the Clippers, Los Angeles persevered through the tense final minutes of its third game in four nights. Bryant and Gasol hit more big shots down the stretch than Oklahoma City, which had won 13 of 18 and had the previous three days off.
"We didn’t play well offensively, but a lot of that had to do with the Lakers," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "We were playing too much isolation basketball, and that hurt us. But the Lakers make you do things that you don’t want to do, and that’s what makes them a good team."
Although Oklahoma City’s outstanding season makes another first-round playoff series highly unlikely, the teams easily could meet for bigger stakes. They have the makings of a lively rivalry, with Bryant and Durant trading artistic baskets while the Lakers’ half-court offense clashes intriguingly with the Thunder’s uptempo attack.
"It raised our level to play them," Bryant said of the clubs’ first-round series. "Throughout the rest of the playoffs, we didn’t face a team that played with that much energy. … I thought they played well here. We’ve just been able to finish out games against them, no matter how well they play."
Los Angeles scored 14 straight points in the third quarter and took a 76-61 lead by grinding the game into a half-court contest, but the Thunder rediscovered their transition game and made a 14-2 rally late in the period to pull within 81-75 heading to the fourth.
Gasol scored back-to-back baskets to put the Lakers up 98-88 with 3:47 to play.
The Lakers are near the close of a brutal stretch with 15 games in 25 days, but the week only gets tougher with visits to Dallas on Wednesday and Denver on Friday before their first consecutive days off since immediately after Christmas.
Durant came out firing against the Lakers, scoring 14 of the Thunder’s 28 points in the first quarter. Los Angeles stayed in it early with low-post baskets from Bynum and Gasol, who combined for 14 first-quarter points.
Westbrook had 18 points in the first half, but the Lakers led 58-55 with four scorers in double figures.
NOTES: Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson confirmed Ron Artest’s technical foul and ejection from Sunday’s loss to the Clippers have been rescinded by the NBA. Artest won’t be fined $4,000. Artest didn’t appear to do anything wrong in the late-game scuffle featuring Odom, Baron Davis and Blake Griffin, whose technical and ejection also were rescinded, according to the Clippers. … The clubs meet two more times this season. … Fans near courtside included Denzel Washington, Glenn Frey and director Peter Berg.