NBA: Bryant’s defense on Westbrook sets tone
By Bill Plaschke
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — A season full of alibis and a week full of accusations were forcefully squeezed into one night of two words.
No way were the Los Angeles Lakers going to give up their championship like this.
"Good energy, good effort," Pau Gasol said through beads of sweat.
No way were they going to lose Game 5 of a tied first-round playoff series at Staples Center to a team of toddlers.
"We played extra hard," Gasol said through 25 points and 11 rebounds.
No way was their title defense going to end so early, so easily, so lamely.
"We need more concentration, more effort, and we know that," Gasol said under freshly cut hair that mirrored his team's newly inspired performance.
You knew it, I knew it, and the bed sheet knew it, the giant white cloth setting the mandate Tuesday as it dropped from the Staples Center scoreboard before the Lakers' 111-97 whipping of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"It's time to defend," read the sheet.
Defend their honor, defend their reputation and, while they're all it, defend Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The Lakers did all of that, pushing and shoving and playmaking their way to their most impressive win of any kind in more than a month, turning this series against the young Thunder on its wet-behind-the-ears.
Instead of going to Oklahoma City on Friday on the verge of elimination, the Lakers travel on the precipice of relief, holding a three-games-to-two lead with a potential Game 7 at home tucked safely in their pocket.
Instead of worrying about a summer implosion, the Lakers can now think about a spring fling, as other blundering high seeds in the Western Conference playoffs offer evidence that perhaps the Thunder is the second-best team out there.
Does anybody else think that if the Lakers survive this series, they are probably going to survive the next month and end up in the Finals? It sure looks that way from here. It sure looked that way Tuesday night, which was such a foregone conclusion, Lakers coach Phil Jackson was even laughing about it a couple of hours earlier.
"I feel very good about the game," Jackson said with a huge smile, relaxed and joking during a pregame news conference that most thought would be terse and tense.
It was as if, like everyone else here, he knew.
It was as if Jackson knew that the Lakers defense would hold the Thunder to 37 percent shooting, force 16 turnovers, outscore Oklahoma City 58-26 in the paint, finally take advantage of their size and their slugging percentage.
It was as if Jackson knew that it would start by ordering Kobe Bryant to guard Westbrook, bringing out Bryant's old physicality and inspiring everyone.
That's what happened first here, Bryant shoving Westbrook on the game's first inbounds play and essentially mauling him throughout the first quarter, climbing into the kid's head and rendering him useless.
It was no coincidence that the game essentially ended midway through the third quarter when Westbrook streaked to the basket for an apparent fastbreak dunk, yet was so spooked by a chasing Bryant that he spun around and threw the ball back to ... Derek Fisher ... who worked it back downcourt to Andrew Bynum for a dunk and a 29-point lead.
Westbrook missed nine of 13 shots and shakily blew three free throws. Durant missed nine of 14 shots and had as many turnovers as rebounds or assists.
After spending three of the first four games going nowhere, Bryant was everywhere, driving on a bad knee, creating with that bad finger, making everyone forget the poor shooting and pouting last weekend in Oklahoma City.
"Kobe had an impact on the game — it doesn't show it on the stat sheet, but he set the tone," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, referring to Bryant's 13 points and seven assists. "Him guarding Westbrook, that threw us off a little bit."
It was as if Jackson knew that Bryant and his mates would ravage the Thunder, and the officials would let them. While Oklahoma City was missing its first nine field-goal attempts, the Lakers were knocking the Thunder players from Jack Nicholson to the Laker girls, throwing them around with rarely a whistle.
This sort of refereeing always seems to happen in important Lakers playoff games, the crowd being loud, the atmosphere being Hollywood-heavy and the officials only being human.
It was as if Jackson also knew that others besides Bryant and Gasol would rise to what could have been a scary occasion.
This was about Bynum earning a standing ovation by standing through eight baskets in 10 shots, a playoff-career high 21 points and 11 rebounds. This was about Lamar Odom actually showing up long enough to grab eight rebounds with four assists.
In the end, this was about Hugh Hefner smooching with two women on the scoreboard kiss cam, then pumping his fists like he was, well, Hugh Hefner.
The Lakers, for a moment anyway, were the Lakers. On this night, there was no way they could be anything else.