It's difficult to decipher from one game what a team might do in the postseason, or how good it might be against different competition. What is a little easier to see, though, is the moments when a team has to decide its character. The Lakers, faced with just that Sunday against Oklahoma City, proved they would fight.
With a massive fourth-quarter comeback and gritty work in two overtimes, the Lakers scored their most impressive victory of the season in arguably their most satisfying win since Game 7 against Boston in the '10 Finals, beating the visiting Thunder 114-106.
Here are four takeaways:
1. The Lakers don't quit on games.
Even as they were being dusted by San Antonio on Tuesday night, the Lakers never really packed it in. That night, it didn't help.
Sunday provided a different story. Down 18, the Lakers absolutely shut the door on the Thunder during a tremendous fourth quarter in which the defensive intensity was cranked to a level rarely seen in the past few weeks. Kobe Bryant's work on Russell Westbrook was critical (see below). Devin Ebanks was asked to guard Kevin Durant thanks to the ejection of Metta World Peace and an injury to Matt Barnes, and did excellent work. Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol played OKC's pick-and-roll aggressively. Overall, the Thunder were 4-of-19 from the field, just a tick over 21 percent. They missed James Harden for sure, but credit the Lakers for not quitting on a game that looked like it was over. (I sure thought it was.)
The Lakers needed every bit of that dominance to push the game to extra frames, where the defense was equally strong. They got their hands on the ball and contested shots, stuck on OKC's stars and earned critical stops with the game on the line.
2. The bench was huge.
Hill, who had played about six seconds of meaningful basketball since joining the Lakers, was a force. Not necessarily because he knew exactly what to do on each play (pretty clear he didn't), but with his energy. Mike Brown, who said after he had a gut feeling following Friday's loss to the Spurs he'd give Hill some burn Sunday, rewarded his little used forward with critical minutes, and why not? They're probably not close in the first half without Hill's six points and four boards, and certainly don't do what they did in the second half without his work on the glass and aggressive play against Oklahoma City's pick and roll game. In all, Hill finished with 14 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks in 35 minutes played -- obviously all highs since coming to L.A.
Ebanks was critical for his work on Durant and a steal with 24.5 seconds left in the second OT (a play created in part by a good rotation from Hill on Westbrook), helping seal the win for L.A. No surprise he got a kiss on the forehead from Brown as the clock wound down.
Perhaps lost in Hill's performance, the Metta Incident (again, see below) and the comeback was Steve Blake, who also played huge minutes in relief of Ramon Sessions in the second half and hit two huge triples in the fourth, and another in OT.
All season, the Lakers have needed the bench to play well against elite competition, and on Sunday it happened.
3. Bryant struggled to score … until he didn't.
While they managed to keep things close early, entering the half with a five-point deficit, it wasn't easy for the Lakers to put points on the board. Bryant, who struggled in the two previous games this season against the Thunder, wasn't sharp early and had trouble finding space against Thabo Sefolosha and Harden. At halftime, he was only 2-of-7, for five points. He made only one shot in the third, too. Some of the early misses can be chalked up to rust -- more than once he found a decent spot on the floor and simply didn't convert, but over the course of the game clean looks were tough to come by. Good individual defense combined with aggressive help in the second half made Kobe's life tough.
Kobe was scoreless until the 3:56 mark in the fourth, dropping to 3-of-14 from the floor, before powering through Sefolosha for a nice runner/and-1 in the lane. Then there was the running, one-footed 3 giving the Lakers the lead with 1:21 to play, and the equally impressive triple from the top of the key in Sefolosha's face 30 seconds later. He stuck another pair of jumpers on Sefolosha in the OTs, and hit a pair of critical free throws.
Bryant also worked his tail off defensively against Westbrook throughout, helping limit OKC's All-Star point guard to 1-of-8 in the first half and 3-of-22 for the game. Bryant was tremendous and should go down as one of the game's brightest stars despite a low shooting percentage in the box score. Bryant moved the ball well, too, piling up eight assists, and was massive down the stretch.
But until the Lakers turned the game around defensively, adding energy to the offense, points were hard to come by.
He had plenty of company, too. Gasol was excellent as a facilitator, particularly early, and finished one dime shy of his second triple-double in three games, but also struggled to find space until later in the game. Like Bryant, though, Gasol was a star in the fourth and into the overtimes, and his overall contribution to the victory is reflected in a stat-stuffing box score line. Andrew Bynum made only five of his 15 shots through what was generally speaking a listless effort in which his trips where he cranked up the effort practically glowed radioactive. It wasn't surprising to see Brown sit him through the fourth and overtime as the Lakers made their defensive push. With Hill on the floor, the team's defensive activity was vastly improved.
4. Metta World Peace is going to miss some time.
If you missed it -- and if you did, clearly Twitter isn't even a minor part of your lifestyle -- Metta World Peace threw a vicious elbow into Harden's head and neck after celebrating a dunk in transition with 1:37 left in the first half. From there, he squared off against an approaching Serge Ibaka, appearing ready to take him on if the refs didn't intervene. After the dust cleared, MWP was hit with a flagrant 2 and tossed. There's no question he deserved it, and there's also no question he'll be suspended. The question is for how long. Watching the replay, it seems clear he knew Harden was there, wound up with the elbow, made contact and followed through. Whether the thought bubble above his head at the time literally said "I'm going to hurt this guy" is irrelevant. The play was shockingly reckless -- another couple of inches higher on Harden's head, and who knows what the damage could have been -- and World Peace deserves stiff punishment.
The focus will go to whether World Peace will have to sit for playoff games, but in terms of impacting Sunday's game the ejection was painful. World Peace had been one of the team's most effective players, particularly on the defensive end. He helped keep Durant in check, was active with his hands (three steals, plus more tipped balls) and on the glass (five rebounds, three offensive). How much his absence led to a 25-14 advantage for the Thunder in the third is impossible to say, given how fired up OKC must have been and L.A.'s well-documented struggles coming out of halftime, but it didn't help.
The Lakers could have used World Peace in the second half, but on the flip side, OKC undoubtedly would have benefited with Harden available, too. The Thunder are a totally different, and lesser, team without him on the floor down the stretch, both as a scorer and a facilitator.
Without MWP's irredeemable play, the postgame conversation could have been very, very different on a few levels.