The Oklahoma City Thunder gave the Lakers nearly all they could handle earlier this month, but Los Angeles was missing a key part of its championship team.
That will no longer be the case when they meet this time.
After missing the first three weeks of the season with an injury, Pau Gasol(notes) looks to build on an impressive debut and help the Lakers win their 11th straight over the Oklahoma City franchise Sunday night at Staples Center.
Gasol was instrumental to Los Angeles’ championship run in June, but suffered a right hamstring injury early in the preseason and missed the first 11 games for the Lakers (9-3).
The two-time All-Star made his season debut in Thursday’s 108-93 victory over Chicago and didn’t seem to miss a step, scoring 10 of Los Angeles’ first 13 points. Gasol finished with 24 points and 13 rebounds in 34 minutes, moving easily on his injured leg.
“I wasn’t really expecting to be as effective as I was,” he said. “You know, I just played and had fun. I took advantage of the opportunities. I went to the glass pretty well. My teammates found me a couple of times and my legs felt a little better than I thought.”
With Gasol back, the Lakers can finally begin building team chemistry around him and Kobe Bryant(notes). Los Angeles is still missing key reserve Luke Walton(notes) (back surgery), but can now create mismatches in the paint with 7-footers Andrew Bynum(notes) and Gasol on the floor at the same time.
“We have our squad now,” said Bryant, who finished with 21 points Thursday to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (24,276) for second place on the Lakers’ career scoring list, trailing only Jerry West (25,192). “Obviously, we can’t wait to get Luke back, but having Pau back is huge. We didn’t miss a beat, either. We have a bunch of guys that can post. We have the advantage.”
Bryant’s presence alone can usually give the Lakers enough of an advantage over most teams, but Los Angeles needed overtime to beat the Thunder 101-98 on Nov. 3. The 11-time All-Star, who had suffered from flulike symptoms earlier that day, finished with a game-high 31 points and connected on a turnaround jumper from the left side with 2:29 to play to put Los Angeles ahead for good.
Bryant is averaging 34.3 points during the Lakers’ 10-game winning streak over the Thunder since a 117-101 loss on Nov. 5, 2006, when the franchise was based in Seattle.
Gasol is averaging 18.0 points and 10.8 rebounds in four games against Oklahoma City since being acquired the Lakers acquired him from Memphis in 2008.
The Thunder (7-6) arrive in Los Angeles winners of four of their last six, including Friday’s 127-108 victory over Washington.
Despite that effort, coach Scott Brooks would like to see his team play better defense. Oklahoma City has allowed 108 points in each of its last two games after yielding an average of 91.0 in its first 11.
“Sometimes we have to continue to get better at playing our style of basketball,” Brooks said. “We have to do things who we are, and we are a defensive team that gets stops and gets excited on the defensive end.”