OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder used a second-quarter drubbing of the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night to look every bit like a championship-caliber team, further shaking off any hand-wringing over the loss of now-departed star James Harden.
The Lakers, who whittled the final score down to 114-108 in the final seconds of the game but for most of the night looked every bit like a team with no sense of its own identity, fell to 4-6 under new head coach Mike D’Antoni.
This is the state of things in the West, made clear by the Thunder’s Friday night excellence and the Lakers’ unease: Oklahoma City is clear-headed, in sync and poised to hold onto its post as the odds-on favorite for another Finals appearance. And the Lakers remain the most hyped work-in-progress the NBA has seen since LeBron James’ first season in a Heat jersey.
But that Heat team never dipped below .500 and eventually made the Finals, while this Lakers team now sits at 9-11, looks nothing like a Finals team and features guys like Metta World Peace insisting after such losses that they’re still the best in basketball, with Kobe Bryant just days removed from promising to “kick everybody’s ass” if things don’t improve.
They certainly didn’t improve Friday, not enough to forestall the ugly feeling that the Lakers are still a hot, overpriced, star-studded mess.
All it took to prove the point was one quarter.
Heading into the second quarter, the Lakers held a one-point lead, had dominated the glass and already were the beneficiaries of a near double-double from big man Dwight Howard.
All fine and good. Or it might have been if they’d had any kind of answer, any kind at all, for Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook turned the court into his personal playground, and on it he chose to pick on Bryant and the rest of his team with a display of utter excellence.
“That’s as good as I’ve seen him shoot the ball,” Bryant said afterward. “He shot the ball extremely, extremely well.”
Westbrook played that first half as if Michael Jordan had taken control of his body intent on punishing Kobe for closing in on his career scoring mark. Westbrook scored 27 of his 33 points in the first half — 13 in the first quarter, 14 in the second — on 5-of-7 3-point shooting. He added five assists. At one point, to accentuate the ridiculousness of it all, he hit a 3 while fading away and getting fouled. Then he calmly sank the free throw.
“He was hot,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said. “He has the ability to get hot.”
Whereas the Lakers are showing an innate ability to turn to mush defensively at a moment’s notice. They allowed 41 points in that second quarter, a bombardment of baskets that undermined some positives for a team in desperate need of them.
“After the game the guys felt pretty good about how hard we played,” Bryant said. “I think they liked that feeling.”
They did, and they talked about it at length afterward: All the positives obscured by another loss, all the signs that the mediocrity eventually will give way to consistent winning.
They did in fact play hard, cutting a lead that climbed as high as 19 all the way down to four with 15.3 seconds left.
There were other positives: They outscored the Thunder in the first and fourth quarters and played them to a draw in the third. Howard looked excellent, and comfortable, on his way to 23 points and 18 rebounds. He even hit nine of his 17 free throws.
Jodie Meeks came off the bench for 17, Kobe poured in 35, Chris Duhon had a very efficient 14 points on just eight shots and the team played with a better defensive energy and chemistry in the second half.
That’s all fine. And it’s equally true that Pau Gasol and, more significantly, Steve Nash were sidelined with injuries.
What’s not fine is that the Lakers are now 4-6 under D’Antoni, a 10-game mark that is a large enough sample size to — especially for a team inclined to fire a head coach after five games — put a large question mark over his hiring. What’s not fine is that a quarter of a way through this season the Lakers and their star-studded bunch are not a .500 team.
And what’s also equally true is that good teams, let alone great ones, find ways to win big games when down players, even key ones. The New York Knicks did it this week when they manhandled the Miami Heat sans Carmelo Anthony. The Lakers still rolled out onto the Thunder’s home turf Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. Few teams are so fortunate.
There, Westbook had his 33, Durant had 36 points, nine rebounds and four assists, Serge Ibaka had 14 points and Kevin Martin and Nick Collison came off the bench to combine for 24 points.
The fact is, the Thunder were supposed to struggle with the subtraction of a key player, Harden. Instead, they have the league’s second-best record and a group of guys rounding into championship form in December.
And the Lakers, who were supposed to dominate with the addition of Dwight Howard, remain a group happy to point to positives after getting thoroughly worked over in Oklahoma City.