Those who thought the Los Angeles Lakers were dead earlier this season should have known better.
Three seasons ago, the Lakers lost five of seven in late January and still advanced to the NBA Finals.
Last season, they lost seven of their last 10 regular-season games, and still repeated as world champions.
This season, despite losing four straight losses in late November and three straight in late December, the Lakers still have the second-best record in the Western Conference and are now riding a seven-game winning streak.
Take away their two losing streaks this season and the Lakers are 30-4.
So it will be the streaking Lakers, not the struggling Lakers, who await the Thunder (27-13) on Martin Luther King Day inside Staples Center.
Contrary to what fools believed just three weeks ago, the two-time defending world champions are not dead and gone.
“They're far from being done,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “They are still the best team in basketball until somebody knocks them off.”
When they last met, the Thunder was building its honor and Lakers were defending theirs.
A tap-in follow from Pau Gasol with 0.5 seconds left in Game 6 gave the Lakers a 95-94 victory in OKC and ended the Thunder's magical campaign that brought 27 more wins than the previous season.
The Thunder's top nine players remain the same from last season. The Lakers' top seven players remain the same, but the team got better.
Gone are guards Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic and the Lakers acquired far superior reserves in Matt Barnes (out seven more weeks after right knee surgery) and Steve Blake.
“Their offense is a machine,” Brooks said. “It's well-oiled and multiple guys can play multiple positions. That's what makes them very tough.”
Describing his surgically repaired right knee as “almost bone on bone,” Kobe Bryant recently admitted he had yet to practice all season, yet it was Bryant who challenged teammates to regain their focus after an embarrassing 96-80 loss to visiting Miami on Christmas Day.
“They play the way they play,” Brooks said. “They have talented players who know how to play and play well together, and then they have Kobe, who takes that team to another level. He just brings a mental, physical toughness that's tough to match.”
The Thunder is 0-6 all-time at Staples Center, including postseason. As for avenging last year's playoff loss, Brooks said he won't bring it up.
“We know what we did last year,” Brooks said. “We know all about Game 6, that we had chances to win that game. They were the better team last year. We've talked about last year's playoffs very rarely this season.”
John Rohde: 475-3099. John Rohde can be heard Monday-Friday from 6-7 p.m. on The Sports Animal Network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1.