Thursday night at Staples, the Lakers had an opportunity to measure themselves against the best team in the Western Conference.
They came up well short.
Here are the five takeaways ...
1. After a promising start, the Thunder took over.
The Lakers looked great early, piling up 30 points on 53.8 percent shooting in the first quarter, racking up nine assists on their 14 field goals. Six players made their way into the scoring column, led by Kobe Bryant with nine and Andrew Bynum with eight. Defensively, the Lakers were active, making some very good plays while holding the Thunder down to 25 percent shooting. But by halftime, a 12-point lead was down to five, and this while Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden combined to shoot 10-for-35.
You knew that wasn't going to last, and it didn't. In the second half, Westbrook was dynamic, scoring 27 of his 36 points. Durant came alive, as well, hitting all five of his shots. Only Harden remained quiet. More impressively, they destroyed any rhythm the Lakers had offensively.
The Lakers are still a good team, capable at times of looking very, very good. But even with deadline improvements, they still have very little margin for error against elite teams like Oklahoma City. Fair to say they used it up, and then some, Thursday night.
2. Andrew Bynum delivered the proper response.
It would have been nice for Bynum to face the media yesterday at practice following all the controversy surrounding Tuesday's game in Golden State, answering questions himself rather than asking others to do it. Still, the best statement Bynum could make would be coming out Thursday, playing hard and playing well. For the most part, he did exactly that. From the jump, Bynum was a force on both sides of the ball, hitting four of his first seven shots, for eight points, while pulling down six rebounds. He had some great moments defensively, including one when he altered one shot attempt inside, then pogo-ed off the floor to block Serge Ibaka. In the second half, Bynum had a couple of turnovers, but his performance was more indicative of the team's offensive shortcomings than his own. On a couple of occasions, he looked to pass out of double- and triple-teams down low but couldn't find an outlet because his teammates weren't moving.
He finished with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds -- a welcome change after five straight games in single digits -- and blocked four shots. The Lakers had plenty of problems Thursday, but he wasn't one of them. His effort was there tonight. Nobody should be going overboard giving him credit for playing hard, but given the reasonable questions about his maturity we've all been asking this week, it was still good to see.
3. The Lakers received an unfortunate lesson in the importance of Pau Gasol.
One of the more underrated aspects of Gasol's game is how little the guy fouls defensively. He's almost never off the floor thanks to foul trouble. Almost.
In the third quarter, Gasol picked up a pair of fouls, first contesting a shot from Kendrick Perkins -- looked like Pau blocked the ball clean, but pushed Perk with the off arm -- then attempting to be the last line of defense against Westbrook in transition. Meaning with only 2:23 into the half, Pau had to sit. Mike Brown, hoping to space the floor around Bynum, replaced him with Troy Murphy, a questionable move given Murphy's defensive shortcomings in space, particularly against quick, active teams. Eventually Brown swapped him out for Josh McRoberts, though in fairness to Brown, he didn't exactly solve the problem. Fundamentally, the problem is the gap between Pau and either backup option as opposed to the gap between either Murphy or McRoberts.
Without Gasol, the Lakers were hurt on both sides of the floor.
Offensively, they had a miserable time generating good looks, lacking both Gasol's scoring ability and also his skill as a high-post passer, someone able to move the defense, create space for cutters and actually deliver the ball. Without him, OKC aggressively attacked the perimeter and made it tough for the Lakers to get entry passes or run the pick and roll (another place losing Gasol hurt). On the other end, losing Pau's mobility against the high screen and as an interior defender was a major problem, particularly as Westbrook gained momentum. The Lakers are a far different team defensively with only one high-end 7-footer available.
It's probably not a coincidence that once Gasol returned to start the fourth, he whipped a pass to Matt Barnes for an easy bucket on L.A.'s second trip down the floor.
Ramon Sessions makes a big difference with the Lakers, as the first quarter showed. With him on the floor, the Lakers get penetration interior defenders can't ignore. Things were rolling, and the Lakers piled up 30 points. But they still live and die with the Big Three, and when one is forced off the court, bad things happen.
4. Seven games against Oklahoma City will require a lot of Kobe Bryant.
Nothing about Thursday's game changed the prevailing opinion the Thunder are the Western Conference's best team, and perhaps the NBA's. One big reason -- OKC can check Kobe. Thabo Sefolosha has long been one of the more effective defenders against Kobe, but now the Thunder can throw James Harden at him, as well. Both were able to keep Bryant either on the perimeter or working with tougher finishing opportunities off the drive. Bryant did OK when given catch-and-shoot opportunities with off-ball screens, but even when he was hitting perimeter shots -- he buried his first two jumpers, both a couple of feet inside the arc, and in the fourth buried a corner 3 facing up against Harden -- they were the types of looks Scott Brooks & Co. would encourage.
Should the Lakers and Thunder meet in the playoffs, expecting a lot of efficient games is unrealistic. After hitting three of his first four shots, Bryant finished 4-of-21 with 23 points on 25 shots. The key for Kobe, and by extension the Lakers, is what they can do for him away from the ball. That means a healthy dose of Gasol and Sessions as facilitators of the offense. Tonight, the ball wasn't in Sessions' hands nearly enough, particularly with Gasol on the bench for long stretches. Without great balance, the Lakers just aren't good enough to beat the Thunder with any consistency.
5. Good half-court defense doesn't matter as much if the rebounding isn't there.
That the Lakers would struggle against the Thunder in the open floor was something of a given, particularly if they went cold offensively, which they most certainly did. In the end, OKC outscored the Lakers 25-8 in transition, fueled in large part by Westbrook's second-half explosion. The Thunder shot 46.2 percent from the floor, a fairly startling number given their first-half mark of 35.8 percent. But even when the Lakers were successful in the half court, they were crushed by OKC's activity on the glass. The Thunder aren't exactly dynamos in this aspect of the game, sitting around league average in ORB percentage, but Thursday earned them 23 second-chance points on 19 offensive rebounds. Probably the worst sequence belonged to Gasol, who in the space of a minute lost a rebound to Nick Collison on a missed free throw, then again on a missed jumper on a pair of weak box outs.