Kyle Kuzma Drops 32 as Lonzo Ball, Lakers Beat Russell Westbrook, Thunder

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2019

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives past Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers won their second game in a row Thursday with a 138-128 overtime victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in a Western Conference showdown at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Los Angeles improved to 25-21 overall and 5-7 since LeBron James suffered a groin injury on Christmas Day against the Golden State Warriors, while the Thunder dropped to 26-18 and an ugly 1-5 in their last six.

The visitors overcame 27 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals from Paul George and a near-triple-double from Russell Westbrook (26 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds). Westbrook drilled three free throws with less than three seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime following a Lonzo Ball foul that caught the eye of at least one observer:

The controversial call didn't stop the Purple and Gold from prevailing in overtime behind 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals from Kyle Kuzma. Ivica Zubac added 26 points and 12 rebounds off the bench, while Ball chipped in 18 points and 10 assists.

          

Lakers Must Channel Sense of Urgency to Avoid Disappointing Fate

The Lakers entered play on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, but they played with an appropriate amount of urgency given what is at stake.

James has been in the postseason every year of his career except the first two, and it's fair to assume Los Angeles will play its way right back into a comfortable position when he returns given his greatness and the fact that it was there before the injury.

However, the margin of error gets slimmer with every passing game, especially with factors outside of James' health serving as roadblocks. That's what makes each win the team can get without him all the more important.

According to Tankathon, the Lakers have the second-hardest remaining schedule in the league. They play the Warriors three more times and the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks twice, among other challenging games, and there aren't many easy stretches where they can rack up long winning streaks with minimal effort.

One side effect of the league and television partners looking for high-profile games involving the big-market Lakers and the transcendent James is the impact it has on the team's strength of schedule down the stretch.

One of the other contenders in the Western Conference will also have to fall out if the Lakers are going to be in the playoffs, and finding that team is no easy proposition. The San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz were the Nos. 6 through 8 seeds entering play, and each brings their own strengths.

San Antonio has been to the playoffs 21 straight years and is the closest thing to the New England Patriots the NBA has to offer given the infrastructure in place with head coach Gregg Popovich. Utah has plenty of talent with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert and not only reached the playoffs last season but also beat the Thunder in the first round. Pressure-packed regular-season games shouldn't be an issue for its core.

That leaves the Clippers, but they are a deep team that already beat the Lakers in their first matchup this season.

The playoffs are far from a guarantee for the Lakers even when James returns, and they must channel the same sense of urgency they displayed in the overtime period the rest of the way to clinch their spot.

          

Paul George Justifying All-Star Starting Credentials

The NBA released its third update for All-Star Game voting Thursday, and George was third in the Western Conference frontcourt race behind only James and Dallas Mavericks rookie sensation Luka Doncic.

That puts him in position to start, although fan voting is not the entire formula. The fans make up 50 percent of the vote in the race to become All-Star Game starters, with current players and media members making up 25 percent each.

Three frontcourt players from each conference will start, and Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis are right behind George at Nos. 4 and 5, respectively.

It doesn't get much more difficult than the two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP and arguably the best big man in the game chasing you, but George has proved himself more than worthy and continued to in Thursday's contest by stuffing the stat sheet and serving as a defensive leader for stretches.

Entering play, he was averaging 26.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.3 steals per game. The points, rebounds and steals would all be career-high marks and impressive in their own right even if he was the go-to playmaker every night like many of those he is competing with are, but he is tallying those totals with the ball-dominant Westbrook cutting into his usage.

George is also shooting 38.4 percent from deep, which is a breath of fresh air for a Thunder team that is dead last in the league in three-point percentage.

Oklahoma City's offense would be an exercise in frustration almost every night without his shooting, as opponents could simply clog the middle even more than they already do and cut off Westbrook's driving lanes and Steven Adams on the block.

The three-time All-Defensive selection has also been one of the best defensive players in the league, as opponents are shooting 3.6 percent worse from the field and 4.8 percent worse from three-point range than their normal averages when he guards them, per NBA.com. What's more, Oklahoma City's defensive rating is 100.9 when he's on the floor and 107.1 when he's off it, per NBA.com.

He can take the pressure off Westbrook by defending ball-handlers but is versatile enough to match up with forwards to help the frontcourt.

Westbrook generates plenty of headlines, but George has been the Thunder's defensive anchor and is putting up All-NBA-caliber numbers on the other end. He belongs right in the middle of the discussion for All-Star Game starters.  

        

What's Next?

Both teams are on the road Saturday with the Lakers facing the Houston Rockets and the Thunder playing the Philadelphia 76ers.

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