In a game where neither team made more than five 3-pointers, it came down to who would knock down shots in the paint and win on the margins. With its well-balanced scoring attack and disciplined defense, the Thunder led for the entire 48 minutes.
The Lakers were the sole Western Conference opponent that the Thunder had not defeated during its season. That all changed on Wednesday night.
OKC had already been conditioned with the size and physicality of Denver’s massive frontline featuring Nikola Jokić. So when the squad faced off against the towering presence of Los Angeles on Wednesday, it had a blueprint on the right course of action: play with pace and tempo and defend without fouling.
Contrary to Monday, the energy in the arena hummed from those in a Thunder uniform. Out of the gates, OKC set the tone that the Lakers’ size would not be a dictating factor in their execution even despite a lackluster shooting performance from behind the arc.
“I thought the whole team responded better,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan. “Against Denver we fouled too much, I didn't think that we played with enough with enough zip pace on offense… I think our guys really focused on those things going into the game and I think for the most part, really, we made some positive strides in those areas.”
In his first-ever game against the Lakers, Lu Dort got the start against LeBron James on defense and didn’t back down. Dort matched up full court against James from the opening tip and refused to be intimidated when matched up on the block. In the first half, James had 10 points on 3-of-9 from the field and finished the night 0-of-5 from the 3-point line.
“He's always good. He's an animal. Full court, turning the players,” said Steven Adams. “It's all the small stuff. Make them start their offense in a later clock. It rushes them more. It's all that small stuff. It's so good. It'll help out tremendously in the playoffs.”
James wasn’t alone in his 3-point shooting struggles. Neither team caught any semblance of a rhythm from behind the arc or was able to knock down more than five makes. The Lakers, who haven’t been able to find their stroke during its three games in Orlando, went just 5-of-37 from behind the arc (13.5%) while the Thunder suffered the same fate shooting 5-of-24 (20.8%).
However, it was Anthony Davis who was most-notably silent on the offensive end. The Thunder held the Laker’s big man to only nine points on 3-of-11 from the field (0-of-3 3pt) after he put up a headlining performance on Monday with 42 points. By attacking to the lane and being aggressive in the paint, OKC was able to tag him with five personal fouls that kept him on the sideline for 19 minutes of the game.
“We just tried to stick to the game plan,” said Thunder guard Chris Paul. “Just tried to make it tough on them.”
Meanwhile, the Thunder remained aggressive on the offensive end. At halftime, the Thunder lead 52 to 45, but a quick surge out of the break by OKC kept the momentum rolling in its direction. Multiple players contributed to the action and as a result, all five starters finished with 13 or more points for OKC. Chris Paul led the way with 21 points. Right behind Paul in the stat sheet was Danilo Gallinari with 19 points and Adams with 18.
Adams played a huge factor in the Thunder’s domination of the paint all night long. The Thunder were shorthanded at the five-spot. Mike Muscala did not play after entering into the NBA’s concussion protocol on Tuesday and Nerlens Noel fouled out in the third quarter. Against JaVale McGee and Anthony Davis, it was up to Adams to keep the Thunder anchored in the paint. In 28 minutes, Adams knocked down 7-of-10 from the field, 4-of-7 from the free throw line and snatched seven rebounds all while only committing two fouls.
“He did a great job,” said Dort. “Our main thing was really getting rebounds and he did a great job with that and even finishing around the basket and getting fouled and making his free throws, he did a really great job today.”
All night long the Thunder weathered the pressure of the Lakers’ offensive runs. When the Thunder extended its lead to 20 points in the third quarter, the largest of the night, the Lakers responded with a quick seven unanswered points to put the pressure back on the Thunder.
OKC didn’t panic. The team stayed true to its identity and continued in what had made them successful up to that point which was a fast-paced offense to get ahead of the Laker’s defense and smart ball movement.
Nowhere was that more important than in the final moments of the third quarter. OKC had just given up seven straight points to the Lakers and committed a pair of fouls and a turnover. It was a series of events that could have changed the tides of the game going into the clutch moments of the fourth quarter. However, in the final seconds of the quarter, Chris Paul looked to make a rallying play going into the break. Guarded by Kyle Kuzma in the corner with less than 10 seconds on the clock, Paul looked to step back for a fade away jumper but the opportunity was sniffed out by Kuzma. Trapped, Paul whipped the ball to the elbow where Hamidou Diallo was waiting. On the catch, Diallo ripped to the middle past Alex Caruso and exploded toward the rim for an exclamation point to end the third quarter.
“Leads are not necessarily safe and things happen very quickly and there's so many different possessions. But what you have to be able to do I think in those situations is you have to be able to answer and stop momentum,” said Donovan. “That's what you got to be able to do if you can't stop momentum, generally it's really difficult. We were fortunate we made a play here or there or a shot here or there, that gave us momentum back and weathered the storm.”
Play of the Game
When asked how it felt for Chris Paul to finally set a screen on him for a change, Steven Adams frowned for a brief moment to recall the play in his head before looking up to the monitor and saying, “It’s about time!”
On two occasions, the roles were reversed for the Thunder’s point guard-center duo. Chris Paul would drop the ball off to the 7-footer at the elbow before stepping in to set a screen on Adams’ much larger defender. The first instance occurred midway through the first quarter and resulted in a commanding right-handed slam over Danny Green who was too little, too late on help side defense.
Stat of the Night86
OKC held the Lakers to their lowest scoring game this season allowing only 86 points. Even despite its low shooting numbers. With a normal average of 26.8 points per game as a central cog to the Lakers’ offensive engine, holding him to only nine was a contributing factor in disrupting Los Angeles’ offensive rhythm.
“I thought it was a mix of good one-on-one defense and also team defense,” Danilo Gallinari told FOX Sports Oklahoma after the game. “We did a very good job against him. He’s a great player.”
Quotes of the Night
“We’re just gonna keep our head down and keep fighting.” -Chris Paul
“We played a little bit closer to our identity.Every day is a little bit different and every day you find out a little bit more about your team.” –Coach Donovan
OKC will have one day of practice before a matchup with the Grizzlies on Friday. Memphis holds the current eight seed in the Western Conference and is battling to maintain its spot in the playoffs.