The Lakers appeared humiliated in their 103-92 loss Thursday to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It came from the crowd. The 18,997 at Staples Center showered them with boos with nine minutes remaining after seeing the Thunder outhustle, outrun and outexecute the Lakers.
It came from Russell Westbrook. His 36 points were painful enough. Westbrook even stood at mid-court following his buzzer-beating three-pointer to end the third quarter pretending to shoot two guns and then holstering them.
It came from James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha. Even though they lack the talent of Kobe Bryant, they still jawed with him, knowing their team has more talent than his.
After all this, Bryant sounded pretty stoic regarding what this means for the Lakers should they meet the Thunder in the playoffs. The Lakers beat the Dallas Mavericks, 2-1 in the 2010-11 regular-season, only to get swept by them in the Western Conference semifinals.
Said Bryant: “It’s all about how teams continue to improve through the regular season.”
There’s plenty of areas the Lakers can tackle.
1. Integrate Ramon Sessions better in the offense. So, the Lakers finally addressed their point guard needs by acquiring Sessions. He may have immediately bolstered their offense compared to how the Lakers looked with Derek Fisher’s running the point, but that hardly meant anything against the Thunder. He scored only seven points on three-of-six shooting.
Coach Mike Brown said the low output was a byproduct of his adjusting to being a starter. Most of his production hinged on pick-and-roll sets that either gave him a scoring lane or a teammate a clear path to the basket or a jumper. Now, Brown wants Sessions to move more off-the-ball so Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol get post-touches. This is a fine balance because the Lakers brought Sessons to handle the ball, but he’s also not the primary scoring option.
2. Stay more disciplined on defense. Sessions’ arrival has boosted the Lakers’ offensive efficiency from their regular-season averages in points (96, 100.63) and assists (21.69, 23.13). But that’s also corresponded to the Lakers’ defensive decline compared with their regular-season averages in points allowed (93.41, 99.5) and opponents’ field-goal percentage (42.7%, 45.2%). Brown and player accounts suggest they’ve lost some of their defensive principles in rotating on pick-and-rolls and defending the paint because there’s less margin for error. But as the Lakers’ showed against Oklahoma City, they don’t have the consistent firepower to keep pace.
3. Improve on hustle plays. Regardless of the team’s inconsistency, there’s one area the Lakers have no excuse for lacking. That involves diving for loose balls, giving Oklahoma City 24 second-chance points and failing to box out. The Lakers can’t assume their front line of Bynum and Gasol will be enough against the Thunder because Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka remain aggressive on defense.
4. Free Kobe Bryant up more. It might be fun seeing Bryant go mano y mano against a trash-talking Harden or Sefolosha. But the Black Mamba’s 23 points on seven-of-25 shooting hardly helped. The Lakers quickly went from having efficient ball movement to going iso for most of the game. This might allow Bryant to have a big enough performance for a few games, but it’s far from a sustainable strategy in winning a possible seven-game series.
5. Protect leads. Sorry for the cynicism, but it’s not surprising that the Lakers coughed up a 12-point first-quarter lead. They’ve done it plenty of times before, where they start out remaining fundamentally sound to set the tone. Once they let their guard down, opponents often pounce.