Lakers center Andrew Bynum blocks a shot by Thunder center Serge Ibaka in… (Mark D. Smith / US Presswire )
Reporting from Oklahoma City — Physically and mentally, the four days of rest over the All-Star weekend seems to have benefited the Lakers.
It has been telling in how sound their defense has been and how alert they have been after looking so disjointed before the break when they lost three consecutive games.
A 90-87 victory Sunday over the Oklahoma City Thunder was another sign of how far the Lakers have come, how their defense has tighten up and how a four-game winning streak can change the direction of this team.
"I think the rest did the guys some good," said Kobe Bryant, who scored just 17 points but set another milestone. "It was kind of a chance to recover, regroup and focus on the opportunity that we have ahead of ourselves."
The Lakers, anchored on defense by center Andrew Bynum and forward Ron Artest, smothered the Thunder in the second half, limiting Oklahoma City to 31 points on 30% shooting.
Bynum blocked five shots.
Artest had the assignment of defending Kevin Durant, holding the All-Star forward to 21 points on eight-for-20 shooting.
The Lakers took five charges, another sign of how in tune they were on defense.
Even with that, the Lakers didn't escape until Durant and James Harden missed three-point shots in the game's final moments.
"We were fortunate to come away with that win," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "Two shots like they had at the end of the game were good looks. But we did the job in the second half defensively."
Perhaps the biggest defensive play was made by Pau Gasol.
The 7-foot Gasol took a charge against 6-3 guard Russell Westbrook with 17.3 seconds left and the Lakers protecting a three-point lead.
"It was a good charge," said Gasol, who had 18 points and 11 rebounds. "It was a big charge night."
So big that Jackson couldn't remember the last time the Lakers took so many.
"Never," Jackson said. "I can't remember our team doing this many. We talk to them about it and today they did it."
Artest again held Durant, the NBA's scoring leader, below his 28.6 points-per-game average.
Artest also came up big late in the game, knocking the ball away from Durant with 49.9 seconds left and the Lakers leading, 90-87.
"I've got to give 100% every night because I'm only getting older and he's only reaching his prime," Artest said.
Bryant didn't have a good offensive game, making just eight of 22 shots, but he passed Elvin Hayes for seventh on the NBA's all-time scoring list with 27,320 points.
His points against the Thunder didn't come easy, as Bryant didn't attempt a free throw.
"You just got to shoot through fouls," Bryant said.
When the Lakers faced the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs last year, it took six games to eliminate Oklahoma City.
The Thunder recently acquired centers Kendrick Perkins from the Boston Celtics and Nazr Mohammed from the Charlotte Bobcats, adding size and beef.
Perkins didn't play because of a strained left knee and Mohammed didn't play because of a coach's decision.
But the Lakers have taken notice of the additions.
"He's the best low-post defender we have in the game," Bryant said about Perkins. "It's a welcome addition for them, I'm sure."