How would the Lakers match up with the Thunder in the playoffs?
Standing at center court, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant approached Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant and Thunder guard Russell Westbrook and shook their hands, knowing the defending champions had survived a six-game first-round playoff series that presented plenty of adverse moments. Bryant must have been aware that any sense of satisfaction in advancing past Oklahoma City would be temporary. The Lakers still had three playoff matchups to handle before winning the 2010 NBA championship.
"I told them they were incredible basketball players, for them to keep working and they're going to be a team we're going to have to deal with for years to come," Bryant told ESPN's Lisa Salters at the time, which summed up well the Lakers' highly competitive six-game series against the youthful and athletic Thunder.
A reunion happened Monday with the Lakers 101-94 victory over Oklahoma City, and the two-time defending champions faced the same problems in defending Westbrook (32 points), ensuring Durant's baskets came with plenty of attempts (24 points on eight-of-24 shooting), plenty of transition baskets (16 points) and the Lakers fighting to hold onto a 15-point third-quarter lead. It featured Bryant barking at teammates to help him defend Westbrook and ensure the offense ran smoothly. It entailed Pau Gasol playing more aggressively to complement Lamar Odom's consistent presence and Andrew Bynum's foul trouble. It required Derek Fisher to post a season-high 15 points. And it required Lakers forward Ron Artest to clock in, as he put it, "double time" on defense, remaining on Durant and also helping out on Westbrook, which provided a good test of his offseason efforts to slim down to 250 pounds and keep up with more agile scorers.
The Lakers (31-12) effort proved enough to record their most impressive victory to date, a claim the team wouldn't acknowledge. But here's one thing they would: The Lakers and Thunder (27-14) are currently locked in as the second and third Western Conference seed and would conceivably meet in the semifinals if the season were to end today. There are 39 more games to allow the Lakers to play out various scenarios, but it still doesn't escape the possibility of a reunion in the 2011 postseason.
"We very easily could," Bryant said.
That's why it's a good time to see how the Lakers would fare against the Thunder should they meet in the playoffs.
Why the Thunder would win: Bryant launched into his teammates at halftime, stressing that it's necessary to treat Westbrook as more than just a role player who occasionally breaks out with a good game. Westbrook's 32 points and 12 assists, his seventh 30-point effort this season and 19th double double, were just the beginning. Durant's 24 points allowed the two to remain on pace as the league's highest-scoring duo (50.8). Serge Ibaka's 11 points and 10 rebounds off the bench gave him his sixth double double of the season. And their 14-5 third-quarter run slashed the Lakers' lead to six points entering the fourth quarter, showing the team's identity remains on keel with last year's playoff team.
"They know exactly what their roles are," Bryant said. "They know exactly what they do. Last year, things were kind of new to them. They had their roles figured out, but I think going through the offseason and coming into this year, they know exactly what they're supposed to do and what they're executing. I think that's the difference."
That's scary considering it took the Lakers six games last season to unseat the Thunder. The Lakers' recent victory against the Thunder shouldn't give the Lakers too much comfort. It's unlikely OKC would match a season-low two-of-22 mark (9.1%) from three-point range. It's possible the Thunder would avoid late-game collapses, such as Jeff Green's missed three-pointer with 59 seconds remaining that would've capped a 9-0 run and brought the deficit to one point, considering they are 15-4 in games decided by seven points or less. OKC would likely respond in appropriate fashion after a Lakers win, knowing it had an 11-2 mark in games after losses. And for reasons including health, fatigue and overall executions, it's probable that matching the Thunder's speed and athleticism would prove too taxing for the Lakers' veteran-laden squad.
"They were running," Artest said. "They were sprinting fast. They were running. I don't know how we kept up, honestly."
After Fisher rattled off platitudes about the team's ability to close out games, how he wanted to set a tone by taking charge and how he understood that he needed to elevate his role when the time was warranted, a common thread emerged in Fisher's conversation with reporters after the game. That, of course, was the Lakers' experience, which includes Jackson's 11 championships, the five rings for Bryant and Fisher, two for Gasol, Odom and Bynum and a roster that averages at least 8 1/2 seasons in the NBA, with six of them having played more than 10 years.
"It was the difference in us advancing past [the Thunder] in the first round in the playoffs last season," Fisher said. "I think it's something that will bode well for us against every team we face. There are very few teams, with the exception of maybe the Celtics, that I can think of that experience-wise can even come close to matching up in terms of having solid veteran players on their roster," Fisher said. "It makes a huge difference. What you can’t do in speed or athleticism or quickness, having been through the battles and the experiences and the adversity and the situation, it helps you keep the type of composure and poise you need to win big games."
The Lakers demonstrated that numerous times against the Thunder in the 2010 playoffs. They stormed out to an early double-digit lead in Game 1 while OKC felt emotionally overwhelmed with the magnitude of their first playoff game. They retook control of the series in Game 5 after the Thunder gained confidence for tying up the series at 2-2. And the Lakers wasted no time securing a close-out victory in Game 6, which featured Gasol winning the game by tipping in Bryant's missed shot as time expired.
The Lakers' recent matchup with OKC also revealed where the Lakers' experience came in handy. They entered their game against the Thunder with a feeling of uncertainty, considering they blew a double-digit lead to another youthful and athletic team, the Clippers. Their seven-game winning streak featured mostly nondescript wins against lesser teams, and the OKC matchup marked the beginning of a schedule that would mostly feature playoff-caliber teams.
Despite anything thrown the Lakers way, it appeared they felt more in tune with what was needed to prevail. Bryant struck a perfect balance between attacking and facilitating so that the offense would play at its most dangerous. Gasol didn't allow the physical nature of the game to give him an excuse to mentally check out. Artest played with more focus as his matchup with Durant further defined his standing as a defensive player. And they maintained the same composure despite all the challenges the Thunder threw at them, securing their 10th consecutive victory against Oklahoma City at Staples Center.
The advantage of experience and discipline over athleticism and youth may fall away in ensuing seasons. But for now, the Lakers can still enjoy it.
"It raised our level," Bryant said of the Lakers' series last year against Oklahoma City. "Throughout the entire playoffs, we didn't face a team that played with that kind of energy. They played with a lot of energy. For us to step up and match that and go through the rest of the series, I think it was a good start for us."
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Photos, from top: Lakers forward Ron Artest tries to muscle his way past Thunder guard James Harden and forward Nick Collison. Lakers forward Lamar Odom helps teammate Pau Gasol, who went to the floor after a collision with a Thunder player. Guard Kobe Bryant drives to the basket against Thunders forward Jeff Green, left, and Nenad Krstic in Game 2 of the Western Conference playoffs. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times