Lakers hold on to defeat Thunder, reach .500 mark for first time this season

It wasn’t the big late-season game the Lakers would have expected once the schedule was announced last summer, but here it was anyways Friday night 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 real 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.

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

But after that hot start, the Lakers quickly cooled and the Thunder started their climb. 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 splashed home 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. Oklahoma City 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 Dennis Schroder making huge plays in a 116-111 win.

Davis finished with 37 points and 14 rebounds and Schroder scored 21 points, their hustle and energy on defense matching their offensive output.

The win has the Lakers (37-37) at .500 for the first time this season, the team now tied for seventh in West with Minnesota. It also gave them the season head-to-head tiebreaker with Oklahoma City.

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)

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

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

Next man up means when the ball swings your way, even though you’ve spent more time on the bench than a judge, you catch it and you shoot it. With purpose. With confidence.

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 right in front of the Lakers’ bench, where he has spent each of the last three games, he didn’t hesitate.


It’s been the way the Lakers have had to play this season, so many different injuries sidelining so many key pieces.

The hope, Lakers coach Darvin Ham said, 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 points.

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 represented the most points he scored in a game all March, a performance coming in a critical game against the Thunder.

Ham stuck with Walker in crunch time, where he made another huge three-pointer 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 points 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. “… And again, you got to just go out and play the right way, be competitive, be together and be consistent for 48 minutes in doing those things. So, again, as long as we come out with that energy, with that effort and with that urgency — there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll do that — and we play the right way, we can walk away and live with the results.”

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)

The Lakers have been getting great results from Reaves. Over his last nine games before Friday, Reaves averaged 19.8 points and 6.1 assists on 57.3% shooting from the field. On 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 before the game.

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

Reaves struggled to score efficiently, 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. He’s not gonna force — he’s gonna be aggressive — but he’s not gonna force himself into a bad play. He’s gonna play the right way. And as long as we continue being disciplined in our running habits and setting good screens and moving the ball with pace and making quick decisions, I think we’ll be all right offensively. And defensively, just continue to compete and get stops as a unit.”

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.”

Reaves finished 11 points on three-for-12 shooting, but he led the Lakers with nine assists and six rebounds.

The team wraps up its home-heavy month Sunday against Chicago before playing five straight road games, including one at the end of the trip against the Clippers.

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