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.