LOS ANGELES — While others might look at the Los Angeles Lakers and see a team with one foot in the grave, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder are going into Sunday's showdown with caution, believing Kobe Bryant and his crew still can climb out of their humiliating hole.
“We know those guys are desperate,” Durant said. “They're playing every game as hard as they can so we just got to come out there with a sense of urgency. We can't wait for the game to come to us. We got to go take it.”
Los Angeles has lost 11 of its past 15 games, none worse than the 15-point thumping the Thunder put on the Lakers two weeks ago inside Staples Center. But the Thunder isn't entering this game thinking about the last meeting, or banking on the Lakers' current struggles automatically translating into another victory.
“We got to be desperate, too,” said Kendrick Perkins. “At the end of the day, we can't let them turn their season around on us.”
Which leads us to the question of how on earth did the Lakers even get here?
After an offseason overhaul in which Los Angeles added Steve Nash and Dwight Howard — widely considered two future Hall of Famers — the Lakers were projected by many to dethrone the Thunder as king of the Western Conference. Oklahoma City suddenly was seen by some as old news, and an act of God, depending on which voice was filling your airwaves, was all that would prevent a Finals series between the Lakers and Miami Heat.
But a funny thing happened.
The Lakers started losing.
Howard wasn't the same incredible hulk he had been in Orlando. His dominance disappeared after undergoing back surgery in April. But his futility at the free-throw line endured.
In the second straight loss to start the season, Nash, the prized point guard acquisition, then sustained a fracture in his lower left leg. He missed the next 24 games. The 38-year-old orchestrator of the team's offense now had a bothersome back from his Phoenix days and a busted leg.
Meanwhile, the Lakers kept losing.
They dropped two of their next three, prompting management to unceremoniously, and perhaps unwisely, fire coach Mike Brown after a 1-4 start. Assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff was named the interim coach and steered the ship to four wins in five games. That stretch still stands as the Lakers' second best week and a half of basketball this season.
Enter coach Mike D'Antoni, who landed the job over Phil Jackson.
The day after D'Antoni was named coach, Bryant labeled him “an offensive genius.” It seemed then that nobody figured defense would become the Lakers' demise. In 33 games under D'Antoni, the Lakers have allowed 102.8 points per game. That would tie L.A. with Houston for fourth most in the league.
D'Antoni went 3-4 in his first seven games, putting the Lakers at 8-9 following its first game in December. That's when Pau Gasol, the team's fourth perceived future Hall of Famer, had tendinitis in both his knees flare up. He missed eight straight games, including a six-point loss in Oklahoma City.
The Lakers went 3-5 during that stretch without Gasol and fell three games below .500. Gasol returned on Dec. 18, and the Lakers won against Charlotte. Nash's 24-game absence ended the next game, on Dec. 22, and the Lakers got an overtime win at Golden State.
L.A. beat the Knicks at home, lost at Denver and defeated Portland at home. That brought the Lakers back to .500, winners of six of seven and showing a pulse.
Then came the New Year … and more losing.
The Lakers lost six straight to start 2013, and even when L.A.'s roster was the healthiest it had been all season D'Antoni didn't seem to know how to put his players in a position to succeed. Suddenly, L.A. was a season-high six games under .500.
But after consecutive wins over Milwaukee and Cleveland — a pair of teams that were a combined 28-48 at the time — the Lakers declared they were restarting their season.
They lost three straight.
Reboot No. 2. Season three in the 2012-13 season.
“I think this will be the start of a new season tonight,” Howard told reporters on Wednesday, after an air-it-all-out team meeting and before the Lakers faced the Grizzlies later that night.
Final score: Grizzlies 106, Lakers 93.
The Lakers dropped to 17-25, a season-high eight games below .500.
“We've got an All-Star team,” D'Antoni said after the Memphis mow down. “Have you ever watched an All-Star Game? It's God-awful because everybody gets the ball, they go one-on-one and then they play no defense. That's our team.”
A 102-84 win over Utah on Friday brings us up to date, to how the Lakers will walk into Sunday's showdown seven games under .500, four and a half games out of the final playoff spot.
“It don't change nothing for us,” said Russell Westbrook with a tinge of indifference. “We just got to play our brand of basketball. If we play our brand of basketball, it ain't too many teams that can beat us.”