OKLAHOMA CITY — They are barely two weeks removed from winning the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament, and not four years ago the Lakers’ core duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis won an NBA championship together.
So maybe it should have been a sign when Davis said Los Angeles was treating Saturday night’s game against the Thunder as a “must-win,” and when, before the game, coach Darvin Ham backed up the sentiment.
When a seasoned, accomplished group like the Lakers says a game is extra meaningful, believe it.
Los Angeles set its words to a soundtrack of action Saturday at Paycom Center, tuning up the Thunder 129-120 to start OKC’s brief holiday break on a sour note.
“They played like the more desperate team,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “And that’s a battle-tested team that knows what they’re doing. So it was a great experience for us to be in that. There’s plenty of lessons we can draw from it.”
The big one: The way a bad spell early can haunt you late.
The Thunder led 39-36 after a frenetic first quarter in which each team shot better than 56% from the floor.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a track meet.
The Lakers kept sprinting and the Thunder stumbled in the second-quarter turn, hitting a stretch where “where we weren’t firing defensively, we weren’t like ourselves offensively,” star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said.
The Lakers outscored OKC 35-20 in that second quarter and led by as many as 26 points in the third before the Thunder came racing back.
“I just didn’t think our disruption and our activity and physicality, all the stuff that we kind of hang our hat on, I didn’t think that was there, in the first half especially,” Daigneault said. “We got it going in the second half, but obviously we’re playing from behind.”
By the time OKC trimmed the deficit to eight points with 5:54 to play in the fourth quarter, James was in the kind of groove that makes even tough shots seem easy.
So even as his teammates went cold, he sizzled still.
His 40 points came on 13-for-20 shooting. He made all five of his 3-point attempts and all nine of his free throws and threw in seven rebounds and seven assists.
It was a vintage performance throughout, but the league’s all-time leading scorer saved his best work for the finish.
The non-LeBron Lakers made 3 of 15 shots in the fourth quarter. James made 5 of 7. And James scored 11 of his 15 fourth-quarter points after the Laker lead slipped to eight, looking largely unbothered even when the OKC defense contested.
“Some of it is, you tip your hat,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who had 35 points in the game. “Some of it is they were a little bit too comfortable early in the game, kind of played in a rhythm. When you give guys of that caliber, of skill level, rhythm, it’s tough to stop and slow down. I think that’s what we ran into tonight.”
The Lakers’ desperation no doubt was a factor. They’d lost four in a row entering Saturday, ranging from an ugly upset at the hands of the four-win Spurs on Dec. 15 to a hard-fought setback Thursday night at West-leading Minnesota.
Before Saturday’s game, Ham stood up for Davis’ description of a regular-season game in December as a must-win, saying it was critical for “the spirit of our group.”
That spirit showed, but it wasn’t all the Thunder had to overcome.
In contrast to the Lakers, OKC missed makable shots for much of the night. In the third quarter, the Thunder missed eight of its first nine 3-point attempts, many on clean looks for good shooters.
OKC finished 4 for 13 on 3-pointers in the quarter and 13 of 41 for the game. It’ll likely look back and find itself frustrated by a slew of open shots that didn’t drop.
“You don’t want to leave it up to shotmaking, because you can’t just walk in the arena and be like, ‘We’re not making shots tonight, so let’s just lose the game,’” Holmgren said. “There were some shots tonight that we’ve hit on other nights, that we’re confident in hitting, that just didn’t go in. But at the end of the day, we have to adjust in games and find different ways to win basketball games other than just making more shots than the other team.”
That’s another lesson Daigneault hopes his team can draw from the motivated Lakers.
But the biggest is the defensive message that when a team locks in like the Lakers did early, it can pay dividends late. That means learning to maintain focus even when a game slips away.
The Lakers made some shots Saturday that other opponents will struggle to replicate. Contested 3s with limited space. Tough finishes over an outstretched Holmgren that so often are swatted away or go otherwise awry.
But things don’t get easier after Christmas, with a looming back-to-back Dec. 26 and 27 against Minnesota and the New York Knicks. And Daigneault doesn’t want his team to chalk up a loss to the Lakers making challenged shots.
“It’s one thing if you’re kind of touching them up and they’re still making those shots,” Daigneault said. “But I didn’t think we had our fastball there defensively in the first half. And I thought that contributed to it to a degree. At least that’s what we want our takeaway to be, so that we’re looking in the mirror (at our mistakes) and not just saying ’It’s a make-or-miss league’ or something like that.”