On Jan. 25, the Lakers were seven games under .500 at 18-25 and had lost 10 of their last 13 games.
Two days later on Jan. 27, L.A. bested Oklahoma City 105-96, who owned the second-best record in the NBA at the time.
“The game was obviously a big game to prove to us we could play with them and try to get out of this funk,” Kobe Bryant said post practice on Monday.
It was the first Lakers win over a top-four Western Conference opponent after the team lost its first eight to the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers and Grizzlies.
Much has changed in the last two months, though.
Now, the purple and gold sit at .500, having won 13 of their last 18 games, including four of five out of the All-Star break.
The turnaround has been keyed by numerous factors, including the second unit’s play, as well as the play of Bryant.
Over the last five games, the 16-year veteran is averaging 34.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, while shooting 56.9 percent from the floor and 50 percent from the 3-point line.
“He’s turned it up,” Steve Nash said. “He’s been scoring at a high efficiency rate, he’s shooting the ball, he’s attacking the basket and he looks as good as he’s ever looked.”
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni echoed similar sentiments.
“He’s been very efficient,” D’Antoni said of Bryant’s recent play. “I don’t know if we’re trying to space for him or playing with Steve (Nash), but he’s been able to get to the rim, which is huge in what we’re trying to do.”
During this stretch, Bryant has attempted six shots per game at the rim, converting at a 74.2 percent clip.
The Philly native credits a changed diet – something he alluded to earlier in the year – as well as other factors as to why he is still able to perform so efficiently this late in his career.
“There’s a certain commitment, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of attention to detail that goes into playing at a high level for a long, long time,” Bryant said. “It’s a lot of sacrifice, but to me, it’s worth it.”
That attention to detail, not only from Bryant, but from the rest of the team will be tested on Tuesday as the Thunder boast a 26-4 home record (third-best in the NBA).
Kevin Durant (28.6, second in the NBA) and Russell Westbrook (23.4, sixth) average a combined 52.0 points per game, the highest scoring duo in the league this season.
When asked how to slow these two scorers down, Bryant was succinct in his response: “You got to try to take away the easy ones as much as possible.”
The easy ones include getting to the free-throw line as Durant (nine attempts per game, 90.7 percent) and Westbrook (seven attempts, 80.2 percent) not only get to the charity stripe with frequency, but also convert on those opportunities.
In all, though, the Lakers understand it won’t be just about slowing these two players down, as the Thunder rank near the top in multiple offensive categories. Turnovers and transition defense are two correlating factors the coaching staff stated will be key in Tuesday’s game.
“We can’t let teams get out in the open court,” D’Antoni said. “If we turn it over, we’re going to be in trouble. The way to reverse that is to execute, to make the easy play and make shots. You do that and you’ll be fine.”