Finally, Russell Westbrook started to miss a few shots. The Oklahoma City point guard had lit up the Los Angeles Lakers with 27 points in the first half, but the halftime break appeared to have cooled him off a bit. As Westbrook missed all six shots he took in the third quarter, the Lakers did not lose any more ground on the scoreboard. The stage was set for Kobe Bryant to spear a fourth-quarter surge.
Los Angeles did close within four points with 15 seconds remaining, but in the end the same thing that kept the Lakers from winning on Friday will keep them from contending for the Western Conference title unless they find a magic solution between now and April.
The Lakers’ weaknesses have been well-documented, with their defensive inadequacies chief among them. But the loss to the Thunder offered the starkest example of the biggest reason they cannot hope to compete with the West’s elite, let alone set their sights on a championship. The problem is the point.
Westbrook toasted Chris Duhon, torched Jodie Meeks when the sharpshooter switched on defense and all but laughed at Darius Morris. Westbrook’s performance would have been more impressive had it not been par for the course for point guards facing the Lakers this season, from veterans like Chris Paul and Jameer Nelson to a rookie like Damian Lillard. As was the case last season, when Steve Blake and Ramon Sessions were mostly helpless to keep opposing points from doing as they pleased, any opponent with a halfway decent point guard is bound to give L.A. trouble. Against an opponent with an elite one like Westbrook — or Tony Parker, whose Spurs the Lakers would also have to go through to get out of the West — the Lakers are doomed.
It is far too early, just 20 games into the season, to start looking at one player’s statistics against any opponent to try to spot a trend. And with opposing point guards averaging 15.5 points per game on 43 percent shooting, the statistics may not seem to suggest that the Lakers’ point guards are getting taken to the woodshed. Those opposing guards are taking 13.8 field goal attempts per game, though, a number that typically only the most trigger-happy floor generals reach. Yet guys like Mike Conley and Darren Collison have channeled Brandon Jennings when they face L.A., because they know they can generate a lot of high-quality looks and force the Lakers to make adjustments.
This is one area in which the highly anticipated return of Steve Nash will not help. If anything, Nash is even worse at defending the ball. Five years ago the simple answer would have been to shift Bryant to defend the point guard, but at 34 years old Bryant no longer defends like he used to — especially not against small, quick guards. With the Lakers facing more than $100 million in payroll, help is not necessarily on the way.
When Dwight Howard and Nash arrived last summer, the Lakers’ championship aspirations supposedly hinged on the star-laden roster learning to play as one and who would have the ball the majority of the time on offense. A quarter of the way into the season, however, the Lakers’ most serious issue has nothing to with sharing the ball and everything to do with stopping it.