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Lakers hold on to beat Thunder, reach .500 mark at 37-37


It wasn’t the big late-season game the Lakers would’ve expected once the schedule was announced last summer, but here it was anyway Friday in Los Angeles.

The Lakers, desperately trying to get to .500 for the first time all season and pick up valuable ground in the Western Conference playoff race, had another chance to build momentum.

The Oklahoma City Thunder stood in their way, one of the youngest teams in the NBA, playing with relentless effort and tons of confidence.

It was a huge game — one of the biggest of the Lakers’ season — and after 48 minutes, it was also a well-earned 116-111 Lakers win.

Anthony Davis finished with 37 points and 15 rebounds and Dennis Schroder scored 21 in the win.

“Kudos to our guys, just staying the course, continuously being competitive,” Darvin Ham said.

The Lakers blitzed the Thunder early, bolting to a 17-point lead led by Davis’ dominance and lightning-quick ball movement. They made six of their first 13 threes, teasing a blowout.

But after that hot start, the Lakers cooled. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the fastest-improving stars in the NBA, and Josh Giddey kept attacking the Lakers’ interior while the Oklahoma City shooters confidently hit open threes.

The Thunder scored 41 points in the second quarter and held the Lakers to 19 in the third, using runs at the end of each to tighten the gap. They finally tied the score for the first time since the first quarter midway through the fourth when Gilgeous-Alexander’s slicing jumper made it 102-102.

The Lakers, though, scrapped to the finish, Davis and Schroder making huge plays down the stretch on both ends, fighting their way to just enough stops.

The Lakers are now tied for seventh in the West with Minnesota. It also gave them the season head-to-head tiebreaker with Oklahoma City.

The last time the Lakers were .500 was Jan. 25, 2022.

The Lakers’ LeBron James, left, and Anthony Davis chat as they sit on the bench during the first half. James is out because of a right foot injury.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It all came with them, once again, shorthanded, and forced to employ their next-man-up mentality.

With D’Angelo Russell (again) the latest Laker to land on the injury report, an opportunity for seldom-used Lonnie Walker IV presented itself.

So when the ball popped to Walker in front of the Lakers’ bench where he’s spent each of the last three games, he didn’t hesitate.

Swish.

The hope, Ham said pregame, is that Russell’s sore right hip is a day-to-day injury.

“It’s not too serious,” Ham said, “but serious enough where we need to manage it.”

With backcourt minutes suddenly available, Ham turned to Walker and the former starter responded with 15 points in 11 first-half minutes.

He finished with 20.

“He didn’t have to come out and worry about getting ready,” Ham said after the win. “He’s been staying ready.”

Walker started in each of his first 32 games this season before a knee injury sidelined him for a month. He slowly lost minutes in the Lakers’ rotation as Austin Reaves took on a bigger role and after the team added Russell and Malik Beasley at the trade deadline.

Lakers guard Malik Beasley shoots over Thunder forward Lindy Waters III during the first half.

Lakers guard Malik Beasley, who scored 10 points, shoots over Thunder forward Lindy Waters III during the first half.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

His first half Friday against Oklahoma City was the most he scored in a game this month. Ham stuck with Walker in crunch time, where he made another huge three and grabbed a game-sealing rebound.

Russell’s injury happened in the Lakers’ win against Phoenix on Wednesday, a game in which he scored 26 and energized the crowd.

“It’s unfortunate, no doubt, but it’s professional sports and it’s a reality of our business here in the NBA. So you have to just manage it as best you can in terms of rearranging your rotation, but we have capable guys,“ Ham said.

At the front of that line has been Reaves, the hottest player in the locker room save for Davis. Over his last nine games before Friday, Reaves averaged 19.8 points and 6.1 assists on 57.3% shooting from the field. Wednesday, Ham moved him into the starting lineup for Beasley.

“He’s clearly a huge focal point for them, which makes him a huge focal point for us,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said pregame.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis shoots as Thunder guard Aaron Wiggins defends during the first half.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis shoots as Thunder guard Aaron Wiggins defends during the first half.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

That meant the Thunder used Luguentz Dort as a primary defender on Reaves for long stretches. Dort, a 6-foot-4 guard with strength, locked up Kawhi Leonard and kept him from attempting a game-winner in the Thunder’s victory over the Clippers on Tuesday night.

Reaves struggled to score efficiently Friday, a hallmark of his offensive game, early on, a trend that began when he had to side-step to force up a contested three with Dort covering him to beat the shot clock on the Lakers’ second possession of the game.

“I mean Austin is a kid who is highly intelligent, and just goes about his business,” Ham said. “He’s not gonna force — he’s gonna be aggressive — but he’s not gonna force himself into a bad play.”

Still, Ham didn’t deny that Reaves was going to see different looks from the opposition.

“He’s gonna be a priority, no doubt about it,” Ham said. “But it all comes down to just playing the right way, and like we saw with [Anthony Davis] a couple nights ago, teams just doubling him on the pass, and doubling him on the dribble, doubling him from the top and on the baseline. He just continuously made the right play, he didn’t try to force the issue.

“And that’s all you have to do.”



This story originally appeared on LA Times

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