What Does Lakers Loss vs. Thunder Mean? Nada

| by Alex Groberman

Far be it for me to get in the way of any Los Angeles Lakers fear-mongering, because God knows I’ve been guilty of doing it myself. In fact, here is my post from nearly a year ago specifying why the Lakers were screwed to no end, and why the fans and critics alike should grab their pitchforks and take to the streets in protest of the team’s half-hearted efforts.

And, interestingly enough, the loss that triggered that emotional outburst came against the Oklahoma City Thunder as well.

Maybe I’m just choosing to live by the “Fool me once…” mantra this time around, or maybe I’m just naïve about the true impact of Sasha Vujacic’s hugs on Kobe Bryant’s emotional stability, but I can’t say Sunday’s 120-106 defeat to the Thunder is particularly worrisome. It was unfortunate, obviously, but not exactly earth-shattering.

Or did folks out there not realize that the new Kendrick Perkins-ified version of Oklahoma City was a team to be reckoned with?

Given the loss means the Lakers are officially suffering from a five-game losing streak, and that the Dallas Mavericks have caught them in the standings, a lack of panic and a measured response is important. Not simply among the fans and the critics, mind you, but amongst the team as well.

The squad’s longest drought since stealing Pau Gasol back in 2007 clearly warrants attention, but it was bound to happen. Complacency, wear-and-tear from a largely meaningless regular season and knowing that you have zero shot at recapturing the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference are unavoidable pitfalls that all veteran teams succumb to at some point in time.

There is only one person in the Lakers locker room who you want angry going into the playoffs, and that person is Bryant. Anyone else’s anger may turn into clumsy, irrational play on the court that may in turn damage the team’s flow. Bryant’s anger, however, is never a bad thing for the Lakers.

While some will point to the squad’s complete inability to play sufficient defense as its biggest problem right now, it’s hard to take a concern like that to heart if you’ve been watching this most recent Lakers dynasty at work over the past couple of years. Defense was never this squad’s forte. Sure, Ron Artest had his moments in the playoffs last season against Kevin Durant, and yes, Bryant still has it in him to stop a player or two on occasion. But all in all, if this team’s hope to win a championship solely rests on their ability to play lockdown 2004 Detroit Pistons-like D, then they really are in trouble.

Neither this Lakers team, nor the Shaq-led teams that kicked off the 2000s carried much weight in the defensive department. They carried most of their weight in the center department. Literally.

Further, they always won the same way – an eclectic mix of Bryant doing the unthinkable, Fisher’s timely plays and an assortment of key contributions from the role players. The Lakers style always relied far more on playing “good” offense and “good enough” defense than anything else.

And thus, not much has changed if you really think about it. Artest is still here -- hopefully able to play the same rough-and-tumble defense he showed he could last year. Matt Barnes is here, fully prepared to do his Artest-lite act on a bigger stage. Steve Blake isn’t the pick-up Los Angeles hoped he would be, but the Lakers were never exactly stacked at the point guard slot in the past.

The only thing that has changed for this team is the play of Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. While the group’s recent losses may not exactly be prime examples of these guys’ best work, there is zero doubt in anyone’s minds that both have turned the corner – for this season at least.

Bynum, ever since the Carmelo Anthony drama, has turned into a different type of player. Hard-nosed, edgy, ready to come to the aid of any teammate who may need him. He’s evolved into exactly the type of piece management hoped he would become. In fact, he’s legitimately begun to play a Perkins-like role for this Lakers team, something that will be crucial for their success in the playoffs when the game slows down and toughness becomes a precious resource.

Odom, being the little engine that could, has stepped it up a notch this year. His impact on this team when it desperately needs length, scoring ability and a veteran presence simply cannot be understated. Sure, last night’s effort against the Thunder wasn’t exactly his shining moment, but make no mistake about it – he will be big for the purple and gold when playoff time rolls around.

The Lakers have match-ups against the San Antonio Spurs and the Sacramento Kings around the corner. It’s difficult to predict which Los Angeles team will show up in those games. Obviously seeding will be on the line, but does it really matter at this point? Does anyone truly believe that the Mavericks, or the Spurs, or anyone that isn’t L.A. has a shot at knocking out Durant and the gang?

A Thunder-Lakers battle is inevitable, regardless of which round it comes in.

Look, the Thunder team is good, there is no question about it. At some point, this season or next season, OKC will eclipse the Lakers as that team in the Western Conference. But until they do, they haven’t. And no amount of regular season panic, fear or stress will change that fact.