Brandon Ingram raised a long skinny arm as Carmelo Anthony rose to shoot the basketball. Ingram met the ball right at its release point, grabbed it and threw it ahead to Julius Randle, who was heading toward the other basket all alone. Randle’s thunderous dunk with 1:08 left in the game gave the Lakers a 10-point lead and silenced Chesapeake Energy Arena for a few moments and Randle screamed into the crowd.
That wasn’t the end, and they nearly gave away this hard-fought win. But right up until the final buzzer, the Lakers stubbornly refused to succumb.
They’d taken two beatings at the hands of this team in the past few weeks and it wasn’t going to happen again.
On Sunday afternoon, the Lakers punched first and kept punching. They beat the Thunder 108-104, notching their 21st win of the season a full month and a half before they won 21 games last season.
“Feels great,” Randle said. “That’s a great win for us especially on the road. We’re growing up as a group.”
Every Lakers starter scored in double digits, led by Brook Lopez with 20 points, with Jordan Clarkson adding 18 points off the bench. The Lakers overcame 36 points from Russell Westbrook. Palmdale native Paul George added 26 points while Anthony scored 10 and Steven Adams scored 12.
Josh Hart, who started his second consecutive game, notched another double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. The 6-foot-5 guard led the Lakers in rebounds for the second consecutive game.
“He’s got the heart of a big,” Lopez said of Hart.
Randle finished with 19 points, Ingram scored 16 while starting at point guard and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope finished with 13 points and five rebounds.
On Jan. 3, Oklahoma City came to Los Angeles and thoroughly embarrassed the Lakers in a 37-point rout. Then the Thunder outmuscled the Lakers, or “big-boyed” them as their coach said, in Oklahoma, outrebounding them 54-30, en route to a 24-point win.
This time, the Lakers made their presence felt inside early with Lopez and Randle setting a tone they hadn’t been able to set in the previous game.
After one quarter, Lopez and Randle had eight points each with Randle adding four rebounds and Lopez adding three assists. In their previous trip to Oklahoma, Randle had only one rebound the entire game.
But where the Lakers folded against a Thunder counterpunch in the past, they fought back this time. Although they didn’t shoot well to open the game, they made up for that with second-chance points. At halftime the Lakers led that statistic 16-3.
By the time their shooting caught up, the Lakers were still in the game.
They made more than 50% of their shots in the second half and nearly 60% of their fourth-quarter shots. They defended fiercely against a team with three more fully grown stars than they have.
As the fourth quarter waned, the Lakers took a double-digit lead. Oklahoma City wasn’t interested in conceding.
“The game’s never over,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “We’re up 10 and our guys are smiling. It’s not over. They had a couple shots that could’ve tied it, I think. We’ve gotta keep our composure and be strong with the ball.”
Clarkson committed two turnovers in the game’s final minute and Ingram missed two free throws, while the Thunder scored seven straight points to get within three of the Lakers. Randle went to the line next, and made one of two to give the Lakers a four-point lead.
“We got pushed around again today, which is fine, as long as we pushed back,” Walton said. “That was the difference. We pushed back tonight. It’s a physical game and it should be like that.”
In the final seconds Randle put his arms around the ball and swung from side to side as Adams, who collected only five rebounds, desperately tried to take it from him. The game expired just like that, with Randle unwilling to give up the fight.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli