On Friday night, Kobe Bryant will guard Russell Westbrook. Well, he’ll try to guard him anyway.
“It is asking a lot,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni conceded. “Westbrook’s a hard match-up for anybody. I trust Kobe (Bryant) more than the normal person.”
Asking a lot? Bryant is only in his third game back following an Achilles injury. Although he looked dramatically improved from the first game to the second, expecting him to have any effect on a player 10 years younger than him is expecting the improbable.
More likely, D’Antoni and the Los Angeles Lakers are conceding that Westbrook will have a big night, but bringing in Jordan Hill and Wesley Johnson is meant to help strengthen interior defense and slow down the other threats on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s roster.
Hill was demoted to a bench role over the past three games after starting 10 games in a row for LA. His rebounding and toughness has been lacking in the Lakers’ last two losses. Johnson has been in and out of the starting lineup, but his athleticism will likely be called upon to guard Kevin Durant. If Bryant was not defensively mismatched on Westbrook, all the talk would be about Johnson’s dreadfully difficult assignment.
Durant and the Thunder enter Friday night having won four games in a row and 12 of their last 13. At home, this team is a perfect 10-0 including wins over San Antonio and Indiana—the two best records in the NBA.
The Lakers have not beaten the Thunder in Oklahoma City since 2011, when Andrew Bynum and Luke Walton were still wearing purple and gold. In Las Vegas, the Lakers are expected to lose by 12 points, the biggest discrepancy of any of the 13 NBA games on the schedule on Friday.
Even Bryant’s presence in the Lakers’ lineup is finding it difficult to inspire hope on a cold Friday night in December.