In a reversal of roles, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers know they're the predators trying to track down Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder.
They have some work to do.
Durant had 36 points, Russell Westbrook scored 27 of his 33 in the first half to stake Oklahoma City to a commanding lead and the Thunder beat the short-handed Lakers 114-108 Friday night.
"They're a team that everybody likes. As a young team coming up, you always want to beat the best," Westbrook said. "I think that's one of the things that motivates us."
Bryant had 35 points for Los Angeles, which trailed by as many as 19 before rallying to get within four in the final minute.
Dwight Howard added 23 points and 18 rebounds for the Lakers, who were eliminated by the Thunder in five games in last season's Western Conference semifinals. Howard and Steve Nash were part of an offseason overhaul to try and catch up to the Thunder.
Instead, the Lakers are 9-11 and focusing on small gains that give them the belief they'll eventually turn it around.
"It's 82 games. This team has just gotten together," Howard said. "It's not like we're going to get together and start winning right away. ... We're learning how to play together. We're getting better. This is not on anybody's time table but ours."
Westbrook's big first half put the Thunder in control, but L.A. charged back with a late 27-12 run to make it interesting.
The game grew tense when Metta World Peace — already a public enemy in Oklahoma City after he clocked James Harden last season — and Serge Ibaka each got technical fouls for a confrontation in the closing minutes.
World Peace grabbed Ibaka's back and the two barked at each other face to face and chest to chest, with Ibaka then grasping the back of World Peace's jersey. Ibaka rared back with his right fist clenched, but the two were separated before it escalated any further.
"It's always like that with us, especially Metta World Peace and Serge," Durant said. "Those guys are just playing hard. I don't think it was nothing malicious or bad plays, just guys playing hard."
The Lakers never backed down. After trailing by 12 with 1:32 remaining, Jodie Meeks drove for a pair of layups and Chris Duhon followed with a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 110-105. Bryant followed Durant's two free throws with a 3-pointer from the corner to get the deficit down to four with 15 seconds left.
Durant hit two foul shots and Meeks airballed a 3-pointer as the rally fizzled.
"They're a tough team," Durant said. "They fought hard all night and made it tough on us."
That it even ended up so close was a surprise after how the first half went, with Westbrook red hot and Oklahoma City outscoring L.A. 26-8 in fast-break points on its way to a 14-point lead.
Westbrook was in attack mode right from the start with Los Angeles missing top point guards Nash (left leg) and Steve Blake (abdominal surgery), plus All-Star forward Pau Gasol for the third straight game with tendinitis in both knees. Westbrook buried 3-pointers on two of Oklahoma City's first three possessions on his way to making a career-best five from behind the arc — all in the first half.
"That's as good as I've seen him shoot the ball," Bryant said.
When Westbrook missed his first eight shots of the second half, Durant helped pick up the slack. He made a jumper, a 3-pointer and a runner for a personal 7-0 run that increased Oklahoma City's edge to 85-66 with 3:34 left in the third quarter.
That 19-point cushion was restored with 7:42 left in the game when Nick Collison took a charge at one end and then dunked at the other to make it 100-81. The Lakers didn't have quite enough to come back.
"We all know that the Lakers are one of the best teams," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "They don't have the record right now but they will. They're going to get some guys healthy and they're going to get some rhythm but they have the best center in basketball and they have one of the best players ever."
That still wasn't enough.
The Thunder charged ahead in the second quarter, just as they'd done in each of their previous five games — outscoring opponents by 55 points in the period during that span.
After directing a 10-0 run earlier in the quarter, Westbrook connected on back-to-back jumpers from the right elbow and assisted on Ibaka's jumper before making a 3 from the left wing.
To top it all off, he made his fifth 3-pointer while getting fouled by Duhon — then still went ahead with his usual celebration move of acting as though he were holstering his hands even while lying on his back.
NOTES: Howard spent time near the end of the Lakers' shootaround practicing his free throws, with Nash — a 90-percent foul shooter in his career — offering suggestions and even mimicking a follow through. At one point, Howard made eight in a row. "My mind cannot get clouded with everybody telling me how to shoot a free throw," said Howard, who's shooting 47 percent at the line this season. "I just have to go up there and shoot it my way and not get caught up with what everybody else is saying because that's when I miss." ... The Lakers went to see the movie "Lincoln" on their day off Thursday. Bryant joked that he didn't know what was taught in school anymore and some of his teammates might not have known Abraham Lincoln's story. "I'm curious to see if you took a poll who knew," Bryant said. "Maybe it came as a great shock to them that Lincoln died at the end of the film." ... Bryant didn't argue when told that Durant called him an "old fart." He said he calls Durant "Similac," a brand of baby formula. ... Oklahoma City recalled Daniel Orton, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III from Tulsa of the NBA development league. Jones was on crutches with a sprained left ankle the team referred to as mild.