The Oklahoma City Thunder held off a late rally by the injury-depleted Los Angeles Lakers in the teams' first meeting since last season's playoffs, hanging on for a 114-108 home victory.
Like in the 2012 Western Conference semifinals, which Oklahoma City won four games to one, the Thunder's youth and athleticism and star forward Kevin Durant proved too much against the Lakers' more experienced line-up on Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Durant barely won the individual scoring battle over Kobe Bryant by scoring 36 points to his rival's 35. The Thunder player also added nine rebounds and four assists.
But Oklahoma City's overall team effort and the effective leadership of point guard Russell Westbrook were the key factors in propelling the team to its seventh straight victory, which improved its overall mark to 16-4.
Westbrook went 12-of-26 overall from the field and 5-of-8 from 3-point range in scoring 33 points, including 27 in the first half to lead the Thunder to a 67-53 lead.
He also did a solid job of distributing the ball to his teammates, ending the game with eight assists.
Serge Ibaka, meanwhile, consolidated his role as the Thunder's third-best option on offense, scoring 14 points in 31 minutes of play and also snagging six rebounds and blocking one shot.
Reserve big men Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet also played key roles for the Thunder. Collison added 13 points and seven rebounds as sixth man, while Thabeet came off the bench and more than held his own with Lakers star center Dwight Howard.
Their contributions were crucial because starting center Kendrick Perkins proved completely ineffectual against Howard, who dominated their match-up in all phases.
Perkins missed both of his field-goal attempts and grabbed just three rebounds in just over 23 minutes on court, while Howard notched a double-double with 23 points and 18 rebounds.
But despite strong efforts from Howard and Bryant, who was 4-of-5 from behind the 3-point arc and dished out seven assists, the Lakers - whose record fell to 9-11 - once again missed the presence of injured starters Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.
The Lakers, who lost despite outscoring the Thunder 33-25 in the fourth quarter and pulling to within four points in the final minute, fell to 4-6 with new head coach Mike D'Antoni on the sidelines
D'Antoni was hired to replace Mike Brown, who was abruptly dismissed after the star-studded team got off to a disappointing 1-4 start.
High expectations surround the Lakers this season after the offseason acquisitions of Howard, a three-time defensive player of the year, and Nash, a two-time league MVP who is currently out of action with a non-displaced leg fracture.
In other action on a busy Friday night in the NBA, the Philadelphia 76ers scraped past the Boston Celtics 95-94 in overtime, the Denver Nuggets edged the Indiana Pacers 92-89, the Chicago Bulls clipped the Detroit Pistons 108-104 and the Golden State Warriors topped the Brooklyn Nets 109-102.
The Atlanta Hawks defeated the Washington Wizards 104-95, the Memphis Grizzlies knocked off the New Orleans Hornets 96-89, the Minnesota Timberwolves thrashed the Cleveland Cavaliers 91-73, the San Antonio Spurs pummeled the Houston Rockets 114-92 and the Milwaukee Bucks cruised past the Charlotte Bobcats 108-93.
The Utah Jazz trounced the Toronto Raptors 131-99 and the Sacramento Kings defeated the Orlando Magic 91-82. EFE