Lakers, Artest Halt Durant, Though Thunder Star Says Otherwise
LOS ANGELES - The Lakers-Oklahoma City rematch was a multi-dimensional affair.
The older and wiser two-time defending champions repeated their postseason style in this regular-season setting on Monday night at Staples Center, downing these young Thunder 101-94 with the sort of approach that helped them win the memorable first-round series in six games last April.
In a game that was the first matchup since the series that some considered the most entertaining of them all, Kobe Bryant did adequate damage (21 points on 7 of 12 shooting, seven assists and five turnovers), Pau Gasol followed his mildly-successful suit (21 points on 8 of 19 shooting, seven rebounds), Lamar Odom picked up the slack (16 points on six of nine shooting and seven rebounds) and the rare sight of Derek Fisher scoring points (a season-high 15 of them, in fact) was too much for this dangerous Thunder team to handle.
But this matchup was always more about Kevin Durant than anything else, the young star taking the big stage for the first time to see if he could match the magnitude of the moment. But this time, just like last time, Artest stood in his way.
Whether Durant wanted to acknowledge it or not.
As was the case for much of their first go-round, Durant struggled to be Durant while Artest was, well, Artest. And Durant, the league's leading scorer who hit just 8 of 24 from the field in this game after being held to 35 percent shooting overall and 28.6 percent in the series that set this precedent, seemed reluctant to give credit to the veteran who remains one of the league's best defenders.
"I missed (shots)," said Durant, who scored 24 points but was below his scoring average of 28.4 points per game, was held far below his season-long shooting percentage of 47.1 and hit just 1 of 8 three-pointers. "I'd be honest with you. If they were playing great defense on me, I'd tell you. (But) I got the ball where I wanted to get it, and it just didn't go down for me. It happens like that. I've just got to keep my head up, keep being positive and move forward.
"I got great looks, got to my spots where I wanted to shoot the basketball. Some went in, some didn't."
The outing served as Durant's worst shooting night since Nov. 29, when he hit just 7 of 22 shots against New Orleans. He had hit at least 50 percent of his shots in nine of his previous 12 games.
When a reporter relayed the part of Durant's observations in which he said he "got great looks" to Artest, the small forward mumbled what could only be described as a correction of his counterpart's assessment.
"I had no looks," Artest said as if he was speaking for Durant before taking the politically-correct stance. "I don't know. I haven't heard his comments so I don't know."
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks seemed to be in the know, showing no hesitation to laud Artest for his performance.
"Ron is physical," Brooks said. "He's always in your face. He's never going to give you a lot of room to operate. That's what makes him the special defender that he is. He's always there. He's not going to give KD many easy shots. KD is going to have to earn every point that he gets. That's what makes Ron one of the best defenders in the league."
Fisher concurred with Brooks, noting that every game Artest logs against Durant adds to the defensive database from which he works.
"Ron is one of the best ever defensively," he said. "I don't think you do what he has done in his career defensively without continuing to take advantage of your experience playing against these guys...(so) when you get a chance to play against guys like Kevin Durant six, seven, eight, nine, 10 times in a season, when you're as good a defensive player as Ron, that's going to help you, no question. It's our job behind him to make sure we're supporting him in the right way so that he can play the type of defense he needs to play."
It wasn't the only dimension of this rematch, by any means. But whether Durant agreed or not, it was a significant one.
And while the Lakers were helping Artest, Durant had plenty of assistance yet again as well. Russell Westbrook continued his candidacy for Most Improved Player, relentlessly running his way to a 32-point, 12-assist, five-rebound outing. The Southern California native and UCLA product looked at home, but that has been the case on nearly every court on which he's played this season.
Westbrook used his speed and superior athleticism to give Fisher fits just as he had in the playoffs, but the veteran countered by hitting five of 10 shots and adding three assists. Fisher, whose production is at its lowest point since the 1999-00 campaign (6.6 points per game on 37.4 percent shooting and 2.8 assists per), said his outing had more to do with righting the wrong of Sunday's loss to the Clippers than it did any revenge factor in regards to Westbrook.
He had just two points on 1 of 8 shooting in that game and was 0 of 4 from three-point range.
"The way we've been playing, the way I've been playing, coming off of the loss yesterday where I felt like there were some shots that I missed that were, to be frank, easy shots, because I haven't really been thinking about scoring or looking at the basket, it's been difficult," Fisher rambled. "But tonight I just wanted to reestablish a particular mindset...It was just something that was really bothering me after losing that game last night and something that I wanted to do today."
The Lakers won for the 10th time in their last 12 games, looking formidable enough that Brooks deemed them the "best team in the league" when it was all over despite a 31-12 record that trails San Antonio (35-6) and Boston (31-9). The Thunder lost the momentum gained from their 125-124 win over Orlando on Thursday, snapping their four-game winning streak while falling to 27-14.
And no matter what layer of the matchup you looked at, the Lakers were moving forward as the victors yet again.
E-mail Sam at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @sam_amick.