Lakers-Thunder Preview

The return of Kobe Bryant created plenty of excitement and

optimism around the Los Angeles Lakers, though it’s yet to pay off

with a victory.

Without playing on Thursday, the team suffered another loss.

Steve Blake is out for at least six weeks with an elbow injury,

meaning Bryant is expected to shift over to point guard for lengthy

stretches starting with Friday night’s visit with the Oklahoma City

Thunder.

Bryant returned to the floor Sunday, but he’s shown a little

rust in his first two games back after eight months of rehab for

his torn Achilles tendon. He missed nine of 11 shots in a 106-94

loss to Toronto in his debut, but looked better on Tuesday, going 6

of 11 from the field and finishing with a team-high 20 points in a

114-108 loss to Phoenix.

“It’s a process,” Bryant said. “You just continue to figure out

what you can and can’t do. Every game, you try to step up and do a

little bit more and just go from there.”

The Lakers (10-11) haven’t lost three straight this season, but

they face a tall task Friday against the Thunder (17-4), who are

10-0 at home.

Their long-term prognosis got a bit dicier on Thursday as well,

as the team announced Blake would miss at least six weeks with a

torn elbow ligament. With Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar already out,

Bryant is expected to handle the starting point guard duties with

Xavier Henry backing him up.

Blake’s injury initially happened Nov. 26 in Washington, but he

continued to play through it.

“I’m just really heartbroken for him,” Bryant told the Lakers’

official Twitter account. “He’s put in a lot of hard work and

played phenomenally.”

While Los Angeles may be in for some adjustments offensively

without its point guard, some defensive changes are in order as

well. The Lakers have allowed an average of 106.6 points in their

last seven games, and now face the high-scoring Thunder.

Oklahoma City has won 12 of 13 and has averaged 111.0 points

during its latest winning streak, which stretched to four with

Wednesday’s 116-100 victory at Memphis. Russell Westbrook led the

way with 27 points and nine assists while backcourt reserves Jeremy

Lamb and Reggie Jackson combined for 35 points.

Like Bryant, Westbrook got hurt in April. But the recovery from

his lateral meniscus tear seems to be going well, as Westbrook has

averaged 23.0 points and 9.3 assists in Oklahoma City’s past three

games.

”Russell is calming down, relaxing and just playing his game,”

Kevin Durant said. ”He is getting confidence. We tell him when he

does no one can stop him.”

Westbrook’s eyes seem to light up whenever he sees the Lakers.

He’s averaged 29.8 points in his last six games against Los

Angeles, including the final two games of the 2012 Western

Conference semifinals.

Westbrook had 37 points and 10 rebounds when the teams last met

in Oklahoma City, a 122-105 Thunder win on March 5.

Oklahoma City is rarely lacking for offense with Durant and

Westbrook out there, but lately it’s started to crack down

defensively. The Thunder’s past 10 opponents have shot just 40.5

percent – 30.7 from 3-point range.

“We put our mind set every time we set out on defense first and

on the team first,” Durant said. “That’s what we have been doing.

We have putting everything aside. We put our individual stats,

shots, rebounds, and assists aside. We are grinding our system

offensively and defensively.

“We have to just keep it up. We just have to have that mindset

where we can’t let anything distract us from what we want to do in

the game.”

Durant has scored at least 35 points in four of his last five

regular-season meetings with the Lakers.