Westbrook looks for comeback to Bryant’s defense
EL SEGUNDO – Russell Westbrook surely must have known Kobe Bryant was coming for him.
Now he has two days to decide on a comeback.
After all, Westbrook grew up just south of Los Angeles and starred at UCLA. The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard was a witness to the Lakers’ three NBA titles with Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal at the dawn of the last decade, all won on steely determination as much as talent.
Westbrook already knows Bryant relishes big challenges much more than easy matchups, which sometimes bore him. Although Bryant is nursing a variety of minor injuries, he went into the pivotal Game 5 of their first-round playoff series demanding to guard Westbrook, a speedy point guard a decade younger and a whole lot faster than him.
“That’s Kobe,” Westbrook said. “That’s who he is. That’s why he’s probably the best player in the league.”
Bryant harassed Westbrook into a 4-for-13 shooting performance with eight turnovers while the defending NBA champions reclaimed control with a 111-87 victory.
Just how did Kobe do it – on a sore knee, no less?
“By being a savvy old dog, I guess,” Bryant said with a grin masking a sarcastic snarl.
After getting a firsthand look at the intensity and determination necessary in the playoffs, Westbrook and Oklahoma City’s postseason newcomers had the day off Wednesday to ponder how to save their season in Game 6 on Friday.
Just as the Lakers changed their approach after Oklahoma City emphatically evened the series last weekend, the Thunder either must figure out how to create more space for Westbrook – Lakers coach Phil Jackson is guessing more screen-and-roll plays – or get ready for summer vacation.
“We made adjustments and showed that we can handle what they have,” Bryant said Wednesday after his teammates went through a light workout in El Segundo. “We know they’re going to come back strong, make their own adjustments and come back with their best game in front of their fans, so we’ve got to improve even more.”
Westbrook averaged 21.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists while making more than 55 percent of his shots in the first four games, catalyzing everything in the Thunder’s offense with breakneck drives to the hoop. Westbrook still made his drives against Bryant, but they frequently were out-of-control slashes to the paint, resulting in extremely difficult layup attempts or awkward passes to surprised teammates, leading to his turnovers.
“Kobe had an impact on the game,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “The stat sheet does not show that. The guy was competing and set the tone defensively. He did a good job of guarding Russell to start the game. That kind of threw us off a little bit. Kobe is a great player. He found his way.”
Indeed, Bryant scored 13 points while taking just nine shots, but the Lakers were doing just fine on offense without Bryant taking over that end as well. Seven-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum combined for 46 points, most deep in the paint after the Lakers dramatically improved their ball movement.
Bynum, still a bit shaky on his recently healed leg, scored nearly all of his points on dunks and easy layins.
“It was a lot more just raw energy, and we went out there focused,” Bynum said. “They play extreme ball-side defense, so the weak side just has to move to get open, and you can score a lot of baskets that way.”
Bryant wasn’t alone on defense, either: Ron Artest, no longer wearing his clownish blond hair, did his best to limit NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant’s clean looks at the basket, holding Durant to 17 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Although Artest acknowledges nobody can fully contain the lanky Durant’s unique skills, he credited Bryant’s defense for changing the Thunder’s offense.
“That’s the hardest we’ve played all year,” Artest said. “I’m sure (Westbrook) will adjust. He came ready to play against us this year. Being a first-year playoff guy with so much energy, he probably wasn’t ready for Kobe, but he’s going to adjust.”
Jackson said he admires Westbrook’s “vaults to the hoop in a daring display of energy, and a lot of that has to do with being fearless.” The Thunder will need that fearlessness to stare down the Lakers on the verge of reaching the second round – although Oklahoma City’s frenzied home crowd should be a big help as well.
“You have to rebuild all that momentum,” Jackson said. “As we can see, home court holds a lot of importance in this series.”
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