The new Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Zoe Saldana movie "The Losers" opens next weekend. They promoted the movie before the Lakers game by sponsoring the starting lineups. So there it was in bold letters -- the Lakers lineup with the words "The Losers" right underneath them.
Fortunately, it was the only time the Lakers looked like losers all day.
With Andrew Bynum back in the lineup, the Lakers stellar defense from earlier in the season returned, and the Lakers shut down Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder, winning game one of their opening round playoff series 87-79. It's the kind of performance that sets a good tone for the postseason.
Durant led the NBA in scoring this season at 30 per game, and he still got 24 in this one, but Ron Artest was brought in to stop guys just like this, and he did. Artest is just a tenacious defender that you can't shake (and the Thunder tried with staggered screens, curls, just about everything in the playbook). Durant is the heart of the Thunder's half-court offense, and Artest shut him -- by extension, shutting down the Thunder. Durant hit 4 of 18 shots against Artest and overall was just 7 of 24 (29 percent) and 1 of 8 from three-point range. As a team, the Thunder were just 2 of 16 from three.
That defense helped the Lakers race out to a 27-13 lead. On offense, the inside-out flow of the Lakers was back and the team looked better than in recent weeks. Gasol and Bynum got some good looks early (although the Lakers struggled some with the Thunder fronting them in the post). Kobe is Kobe; he led the Lakers in scoring, but the defense of Thabo Sefolosha kept him shooting poorly much of the game (6 of 19). Still the Lakers got points.
The Thunder made a couple little runs when the Lakers turned the ball over and allowed the athletic Thunder to get out and run. That's what former UCLA star Russell Westbrook does best -- he was 10 of 14 shooting for the game with 23 points and eight assists. He kept the Thunder within striking distance in this one, scoring or assisting on the Thunder's last 17 points of the first half.
But the Thunder's runs were short lived because of the Lakers defense.
It was a day when there were a number of good signs. The much-maligned bench helped the Lakers extend their lead to start the fourth quarter. Back in the first quarter, Bynum made a blatant shoulder check of Jeff Green after he thought Green pushed him (that should have been a foul on Bynum; he's lucky the three officials were watching the ball and not doing their jobs).
This game had a lot of good omens for the Lakers. This season, when games were tight late, the Thunder often struggled to execute their offense and they missed a lot of shots. Signs of a young team (and the Thunder are literally the youngest team in the NBA). In the playoffs, the entire 48 minutes is like the last five in a close regular season game.
There are things the Lakers need to do, like not turn the ball over so the Thunder do not get out and run. But the Lakers defense clearly bothered the Thunder a lot, and while the Thunder defense bothered the Lakers some, the Lakers were better at overcoming it. Phil Jackson knows how to make adjustments between playoff games, his team knows how to execute them. These Thunder have never had to do that before.
Maybe the best omen: Phil Jackson coached teams are 44-0 when they win game one of a playoff series. Looks like it could be 45-0 after this one.