Thunder working to regain defensive edge for playoffs

The Los Angeles Lakers are playing out the string without LeBron James and without a chance of making the playoffs.

But entering Tuesday's game at the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers are in their best stretch since early December, winning four of the last five.

That includes Sunday's 130-102 win in New Orleans, which matched Los Angeles' most lopsided win of the season.

The Lakers and Thunder split their first two meetings, with the road teams winning each time.

The Thunder have yet to play the Lakers with James, who missed the first two games with the Christmas Day groin injury that kept him out for more than a month.

And James won't play in this one, having been shut down for the rest of the season to let that groin heal completely heading into the offseason.

While James' absence -- and that of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart as the Lakers turn their focus to next season -- would seem to indicate a great chance for Oklahoma City to escape with a win, the results so far this season indicate otherwise.

The Thunder are just 11-13 against the eight non-playoff teams in the Western Conference this season, and that becomes even more magnified if their 4-0 record against the cellar-dwelling Phoenix Suns is removed.

That includes losses such as Sunday's at home to Dallas, which was playing without star Luka Doncic.

In that game, the Thunder's top three players -- Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams -- combined to go 27 for 56 from the floor with 72 points. The rest of the team, though, scored just 31 points on 11-of-42 shooting.

"Sometimes you've just got to make shots," reserve point guard Raymond Felton said. "Simple as that."

The Thunder struggled offensively for much of the early part of the season but stayed afloat with defensive play that was among the best in the league. The offense came on strong in January and early February before reverting after the All-Star break.

"The ball sometimes doesn't go in the basket," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "Even coming down the stretch, I thought our guys got some fairly decent looks to close the game out.

"What happens is this is why we've got to be a defensive team first."

The Thunder have dropped seven of their last nine, falling to eighth place in the Western Conference.

Though he's been shut down for the season, James will travel with the team and stay on the bench at home games. Tuesday's game is the Lakers' last one away from Los Angeles.

"It's good for the guys," Lakers coach Luke Walton said of James remaining close to the team. You know part of going into this season was, 'Look, we're putting you with a lot of young players. There's a lot of new guys, as far as the free agents coming in and whatnot.' So the more time that, ideally, they'd spend together on the floor would be beneficial, but anytime they can get together off the floor, I think, helps for down the road as well."

--Field Level Media
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