The Oklahoma City Thunder still can’t solve their Los Angeles rivals.
The young guns of Oklahoma City, primed to be the vanguard of the NBA’s next generation, were outdueled by the Western Conference’s stalwart Lakers, losing an exhausting Sunday matinee 90-87. Desperate to make the leap from nuisance to contender, the Thunder aren’t there yet.
But they’re close. So close that Kevin Durant thought his potentially game-tying three-point attempt with less than five seconds remaining was going to extend the game.
“I got a good look, I was able to shoot my right shot, and once I let it go, I thought it was good,” Durant said after the game.
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After Durant’s shot caromed out, Thunder forward Nick Collison had the position and the presence of mind to tap the ball back out to guard James Harden, whose open look also missed its mark, sealing the slim Laker victory.
Without the length and size of reinforcements Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed, the Thunder nonetheless stood blow for blow against the two-time defending Los Angeles Lakers.
Despite surrendering 22 points on 19 turnovers, allowing 15 second chance points on nine offensive rebounds, and shooting a well below average 16 free throws, the Thunder was a pair of errant three-point attempts short of pushing the Lakers to overtime in front of a surly Oklahoma City crowd.
Oklahoma City’s Thabo Sefolosha and Harden shackled Kobe Bryant for the majority of the game, holding the future Hall of Famer to just 17 points on eight-for-22 shooting. An undermanned, undersized Thunder frontcourt managed to out-rebound the triplet towers from Los Angeles 39-36.
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Thunder coach Scott Brooks made was satisfied with the effort, if not the outcome.
“I thought we played as hard as we could possibly play, and I though they did the same. It was as intense as a regular season game can be,” Brooks said.
But as stellar an effort as the Thunder exerted, a loss is a loss, and three straight, even against three of the league’s top teams in the Spurs, Magic and Lakers, is all the worse.
“These last couple of games, it felt like nothing’s gone our way,” a crestfallen Durant said of the team’s longest losing streak of the season.
Early, it felt just the opposite. Oklahoma City blitzed out to an early 12-2 lead, and led by as many as 14 in a first half that saw the Thunder shoot better than 60 percent.
In the second quarter, the second of two consecutive threes from Daequan Cook gave the Thunder its largest lead of the day at 38-24, but just swiftly as Oklahoma City had extended its lead, the Lakers narrowed the gap.
An Andrew Bynum layup capped a 14-4 run that spanned just 3:27 and brought the Lakers within four.
Less than four minutes later, the Lakers took their first lead at 46-45 with 2:48 remaining in the first half.
“The big part that hurt us: we got up 13, and let them right back in it. They cut that lead down pretty quickly and then it was back and forth the whole way,” said Collison, whose last two matchups have been Magic center Dwight Howard and the carousel of seven-footers in the Lakers’ lineup.
The very same sentiment that the Thunder let a game that they should have won slip away resonated throughout the team. The air of exuberant youth that usually filled the locker room was gone. It wasn’t a group of men that had given in that was dressing, but one that was sitting somewhere between frustration and emotional fatigue.
“Those losses are tough. We had that game,” Durant said.
Defeating the Lakers would seem to somehow make up what is now a 1-7 mark against the three teams ahead of the Thunder in the Western Conference. Instead, the loss seems to emphasize the Thunder’s inability to get over the hump against the league’s best.