Kobe Bryant sometimes thinks the Los Angeles Lakers are an orchestra in need of a conductor. He picked up the baton in Game 5, driving the lane aggressively and defending Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook with zeal.
The result was a businesslike blowout that showed exactly what Bryant meant when he said the upstart Thunder had captured the mighty Lakers' attention.
Pau Gasol had 25 points and 11 rebounds, Andrew Bynum added 21 points and the Lakers vigorously rebounded from back-to-back losses with a 111-87 victory over Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, taking a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series.
"Considering how inconsistently we've been playing, and the last game in Oklahoma, this was one of our better (games of the season)," said Bryant, who had 13 points and seven assists.
Gasol and Bynum followed Bryant's no-nonsense lead, relentlessly scoring inside while giving up no easy buckets on the other end. Even Ron Artest shaved off his goofy blond dye job before playing another standout defensive game against Kevin Durant in support of Bryant, who volunteered to guard Westbrook.
"It's like conducting an orchestra," Bryant said. "You have guys that you can use and go to in certain situations."
Bryant, Gasol and Artest rested their instruments in the fourth quarter, preparing for Game 6 on Friday night.
The defending NBA champions coolly shook off the eighth-seeded Thunder's series-tying blowout win in Game 4 with a comprehensive thrashing of the postseason neophytes. Oklahoma City never recovered after missing its first 13 shots, and the Thunder must win again at home to avoid elimination.
"I wish I could say why, but they kicked our butts from the beginning," said Durant, who had 17 points. "They had some dunks early on and got the fans excited, and they just kind of cruised from there. It was tough to come back."
Although Bryant again didn't put up astronomical offensive numbers, there was no need. He did his best work slowing Westbrook, limiting the Thunder's star point guard to 15 points.
"I enjoy a challenge, and he's been playing sensational," Bryant said. "If we're going to be eliminated, I don't want to go into the summer thinking I could have done something about it, so I accepted the challenge."
The Lakers led by 21 points at halftime and went ahead by 32 late in the third quarter of their third home victory in the series. Durant and Westbrook combined for 9-of-27 shooting for Oklahoma City, which never recovered after missing its first 13 shots.
While the Thunder are still learning about the demands of playoff basketball, the Lakers already have an advanced degree - and they showed off what they've learned during two straight trips to the NBA finals.
"We know what we needed to do," Bynum said. "We got embarrassed, and we wanted to show them that we're still the world champions. ... We're supposed to do that. The message will be sent in Game 6. Close 'em out."
Los Angeles jumped to a 10-0 lead before the Thunder's first point on Westbrook's free throw nearly 4 1/2 minutes in, and Oklahoma City couldn't hit a field goal until Durant's jumper with 5:49 left.
Bynum scored eight straight points underneath the basket as the Lakers finally turned their superior height into an advantage, rather than the anchor it became in Oklahoma City. Bynum had 11 rebounds amid 8-for-10 shooting, while Gasol scored 15 points in the third quarter to put away the win.
"We've been beat up before," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "The only thing you can do is come back and respond. We don't get too high, we don't get too down. The one thing that we always do is respond."
After Los Angeles won the first two games, Oklahoma City evened the series and gained a wealth of confidence with back-to-back wins. The Thunder embarrassed the Lakers in Game 4, going ahead by 29 points and holding Bryant to 12 after the former MVP didn't take a shot in the first quarter.
With the backing of a Staples Center crowd radiating unease even before the game, the Lakers played heady defense from the opening tip - including Bryant's move to Westbrook, the speedy former UCLA point guard whose dribble penetration catalyzes much of the Thunder offense.
"I blame that on myself," Westbrook said of his struggles against Bryant. "It was a different look, and I've just got to be confident in what I'm doing."
Los Angeles led 31-16 after one quarter and steadily pushed the advantage heading into halftime, going up 55-34 on Bryant's jumper with 7.7 seconds left. The Lakers made nearly 65 percent of their first-half shots while holding Oklahoma City to 26-percent shooting - and the Thunder fast breaks that shredded the Lakers in Oklahoma City were almost nonexistent, with just two first-half points on the break.
Los Angeles even got 14 points in a resurgent effort from Artest, whose shooting woes had overshadowed his defensive efforts against Durant in the series. The mercurial forward's bald dome certainly seemed to indicate he's done playing around as he chases his first championship ring.
NOTES: The Lakers slightly improved their troublesome free-throw shooting, going 22 for 31 after a 17-for-28 effort in Game 4. Bryant, who took just two free throws in the past two games, went 5 for 7. ... After coach Phil Jackson asked Artest not to shoot so many 3-pointers from the sides of the court, since they tend to create fast-break chances for an opponent, Artest took two in the first three quarters - but made both. ... Fans included Leonardo DiCaprio and model Bar Rafaeli, Will Ferrell, Joel McHale, Sylvester Stallone, Eddie Murphy, Dustin Hoffman, Barry Bonds, singer Seal, David Arquette and UCLA coach Ben Howland, while Hugh Hefner watched from a luxury box.
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