Lakers hit a few bumps while grinding out 87-79 win over Thunder
The Lakers finally flipped the switch, looking as though they were ready to defend their championship after weeks of indecisive play.
Then the second quarter began.
They held off the Oklahoma City Thunder, 87-79, in a playoff opener at Staples Center that felt more like a mild chill instead of a warm Sunday breeze.
Andrew Bynum returned 30 days after he limped off the court and Kobe Bryant was back after missing four of the last five games, but Coach Phil Jackson didn’t like the last three quarters, without much argument from anybody.
The Thunder never led but never were left behind entirely, trailing by six points with under three minutes to play before fading for good.
The outcome might have been different had All-Star forward Kevin Durant been able to make a few more shots, according to Durant himself, but this might be the state of the Lakers these days with a partly healthy Bryant and a still-getting-into-shape Bynum.
They’ll take a victory any way they can.
“We could have definitely played a little better, but at this stage you’ve really just got to win games,” Bryant said.
Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is Tuesday at Staples Center.
Bynum looked sharper than Bryant, collecting 13 points and 12 rebounds in 30 minutes after missing 13 games because of a strained left Achilles’ tendon.
He reported nothing more than a “couple twinges” after playing eight minutes longer than Jackson planned.
The size and strength the Lakers had lacked were on display in one second-quarter cycle. Bynum blocked Durant’s shot, then dunked at the other end after gathering the ball down low, pivoting and beating Nenad Kristic to give the Lakers a 38-21 lead with 6:43 left until halftime.
Bryant, on the other hand, made six of 19 shots and had 21 points. He was active on defense, getting two steals and two blocked shots, but made only seven of 12 free throws, a continual sore spot for a career 83.8% shooter from the line.
He was tight-lipped after the game when asked about his play.
“Felt fine,” he said. “It’s good enough to win.”
Said Jackson: “I’m sure Kobe’s not happy with his game. I don’t think he likes to shoot six for 19 and I know his free-throw shooting is a consternation to him, that he’s not shooting the shot the right way.”
Bryant has been bothered by swelling in his right knee, a broken right index finger and a sore tendon in his left ankle, all of which contributed to his sitting out most of the last two weeks.
The Lakers pretty much sat out the last month of the season, finishing 4-7 down the stretch, but were strong in the first quarter Sunday, taking a 27-13 lead.
They never won another quarter from there.
“I thought we eked the game out,” Jackson said. “We’re one of the better teams in the league in the first quarter . . . and we haven’t sustained energy all the way through ballgames. This is something we’re going to have to do in the playoffs.”
The Lakers were concerned from the start, an assistant coach reminding them of their 91-75 loss to the Thunder last month by posting in the locker room the box score from that game. A black felt marker was used to outline how poorly the Lakers shot that night (39.2%), their strikingly few assists (seven) and high number of turnovers (18).
On Sunday, they were incrementally better in shooting (41%) and turnovers (14), and improved to 14 assists.
Ron Artest was a nonentity on offense (seven points, one for eight from three-point range) but helped hold Durant to seven-for-24 shooting and 24 points, six below his league-leading average during the regular season.
Durant said his performance was “discouraging.”
“If I make four or five more shots, maybe it would have been a different game,” he said.