Lakers defense faces another tough test

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – After giving up a whopping 408 points in their last three games – the most ever allowed over a three-game span in franchise history -- the Los Angeles Lakers will welcome the league’s leading scorer in Kevin Durant to Staples Center on Sunday.

It will be the first of four straight games against the top two teams in the Western Conference – two against the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by two against the San Antonio Spurs.

“Tough times, tough schedule,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni on Saturday after the team held a brief shootaround in preparation for an early 12:30 game against the Thunder the following day that will seem even earlier because of daylight savings time.

The challenge come tipoff will be trying to keep Durant, who is averaging a career-high 31.8 points, from shooting the lights out. In two games against the Lakers this season, Durant is averaging 37 points while shooting a perfect 20-for-20 from the foul line.

“I don’t think anybody has ever figured that out,” D’Antoni said when asked how the Lakers could stop the seventh-year forward. “You just try to contain him. You try not to foul him. If you do that, then you’re in for a long night. Try to make him make hard 2s, contested 2s. If he makes 15 or 20 of them, then you live with it. But you can’t take away everything, or you’ll give him everything.”

Then there’s Russell Westbrook, seven games back from a knee injury, averaging 21 points on 50 percent from the field and 48.4 percent from 3-point range in that span.

“He’s an element that’s hard to handle, and he’s playing extremely well, especially shooting the basketball,” D’Antoni said. “That’s something that’s scary to think that with all that athleticism, now he’s starting to shoot the ball well. That’s scary.”

Westbrook had 19 points and 12 assists when the Thunder beat the Lakers in Oklahoma City in December, 122-97. Westbrook missed the next game in February, but the Thunder still won, albeit in a closer contest, 107-103.

The Lakers will have to protect the paint against the rim-running Westbrook if they hope to have a chance. Pau Gasol (sore left ankle) is probable after going through shootaround Saturday. If Gasol can’t go, the team will likely look to second-year center Robert Sacre.

Despite the Lakers’ struggles as a team their last three game, D’Antoni gave credit to Sacre for his improvement.

“Those are the little victories that we have to have,” D’Antoni said of Sacre, who is averaging 8.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in 17.5 minutes in four games this month. “We have to develop guys to get better to be able to go forward with what the franchise wants to do in the future. Those are other goals that we have, without losing. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

They’re also trying to correct their defense which has been virtually nonexistent of late.

“We don’t get into bodies and we don’t make the multiple efforts, and we don’t get back all the time and we’re not as tough as we need to be,” D’Antoni said.

D’Antoni said that after an initial defensive burst by MarShon Brooks and Kent Bazemore when they were acquired from Golden State at the trade deadline, those two have also grown sluggish on the defensive end like the rest of the team.

“It’s almost like a Texas gusher where you get the oil and after a few minutes, it’s water coming out,” D’Antoni said.

“I think now it’s acerbated a little bit because we lost (Steve) Blake, who was one of our better defenders, and Shawne Williams. So now we’ve thrown two new guys in that really don’t have the exact basis for what we do ingrained in them. So, they’re out of position sometimes and now guys are starting to look around, and you put a little fatigue on top of that and it goes all to hell. But that things we got to battle against and try to get it better.”

They’ll have to get better against some of the league’s best. Thirteen of the Lakers’ final 19 games are against teams with a better than .500 record.

“This is going to show their character,” D’Antoni said. “If it doesn’t build character, it’s going to show it.”