Durant, Westbrook lead Thunder in pounding of Lakers
OKLAHOMA CITY — Somewhere close to tipoff, the Lakers lost interest.
The Thunder never did.
That’s the thing about this team — at least so far. They try hard. Every night.
So, midway through the first quarter when the Thunder fell behind 13-7 they called timeout.
The result was an 18-3 run and a 122-97 victory, which could have been much worse but the Thunder relented and didn’t play their starters in the fourth quarter.
But Friday wasn’t so much about the Lakers and their issues or Kobe Bryant and his heel. Let’s face it, a good Laker team would have had a hard time running with OKC, and this wasn’t a good Laker team. They started Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson and were down three point guards, due to injury. Bryant started, but if you’re looking for an easy, two-dimensional way to see how wide the gap has gotten between the Lakers and the Thunder look at the box score – Kendrick Perkins outscored Bryant, 6–4.
Friday was about the kind of team the Thunder are turning into. The Thunder are an odd and desirable combination of been there/done paired nicely with not acting like it’s anything but a new experience.
Oklahoma City did what good teams do, and they now are the rare power team which plays hard on a nightly basis and has legitimate playoff fortitude.
There’s Indiana. There’s San Antonio and the Thunder. Past that, there are teams like Portland and Golden State. Maybe Houston, too, but playoff strong? Not yet, anyway.
“Growth. Maturity. They understand what it takes to win,” said Laker forward Pau Gasol, who has been around long enough to beat the Thunder in a playoff series. “All that contributes to them being one of the top teams in the league.”
Unlike Miami, which seems to, and can, sleepwalk through spells, quarters or even long portions of games, and gets away with it on sheer talent and good looks, the Thunder plays like they’re choke-holding a grudge.
Maybe that’s Westbrook and his personality. Maybe it’s coach Scott Brooks who reveals little, says less than that and make melba toast look Instagram worthy. Maybe it’s the bench which features a prep sorta feel with newcomer Steven Adams and new-the-scene Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones. The three combined for 29 points Friday. Reggie Jackson, in just his third year, has become a closer. He went for 19 points, had five rebounds and four assists in 25 minutes. Oh, and Andre Roberson, who was playing in the D-League this time last week, started his second game in a row and got to guard Bryant.
“We have a pretty good team,” said Scott Brooks. “That’s been the case for awhile now. Every team has its own identity. We have good players.”
No, he’s wrong. Good players and good teams make the state finals and have pep assemblies. The Thunder have a pair of players who are among the top five in the world and both are playing at that level in the early part of the season.
The Thunder haven’t played this well since they rallied past the Spurs two seasons ago in the Western Conference Finals. They are 18-4 overall and 11-0 at home. They have beaten the Spurs, Clippers, Warriors and Pacers. Their identity since that run two seasons ago has evolved and been polished. It’s a high-level team filled with superstar players who are equally comfortable posing for GQ as they are diving for loose balls.
Once again, Durant is surpassing his career averages in points (28.4), assists (4.9) and rebounds (8.2). And sure, it looked like the Lakers were allergic to defense, but Durant made it look easy Friday. He had 31 points on 10-of-13 shooting. Made three-of-five three points, had eight rebounds and four steals.
Durant has 30 or more points in three of his past four games. He’s shot better than 50 percent in four of his past five and better than 60 percent in three games during that span.
That’s the kind of production that wins games by yourself. But Durant and has Westbrook who went for 19 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. The Lakers refused to guard anyone wearing Thunder blue Friday or else Westbrook would have played the fourth quarter and would have had a triple-double. He’s averaged 21.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 11.2 assists in his past four games and has played more than 35 minutes in just one of the past five.
“With all the energy they were just up and down the floor,” Lakers forward Jordan Hill said. “Very athletic and never gave up.”
If you want to know when the last time the Thunder played poorly, you really have to think about. Even the best teams lay an egg from time to time. Only the Thunder haven’t done it since game two of the season in a loss to Minnesota.
“I like where we are right now,” Brooks said. “I like our mindset.”
Fourth in the league in points and second in the league in defensive field goal percentage. That’s the mindset: Outscore people and keep them from scoring, another combination that has been massaged over the past few seasons. No longer just scorers, the attention to defense has become real.
The Lakers shot 41 percent and turned it over 19 times. The Thunder shot 47.5 percent, turned it over just 14 times and out-rebounded the Lakers 59-41. That’s a sharp mindset against a team where dull probably cuts just as deeply.
But that’s not the kind of team the Thunder are. Not this year.
Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter: @andrewgilmanOK