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Scott Howard-Cooper

The Thunder and the Ford Center proved to be worthy opponents for the defending champion Lakers.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

Lakers overcome thunderous hurdle to advance

Posted May 1 2010 2:30AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Three minutes after the scoreboard lights sighed to 0:00 late Friday night, most of the 18,342 fans, clad in matching blue T-shirts left on every chair back, remained standing in place, refusing to leave their special meeting place without a final ovation for the Thunder, refusing to leave the season.

It was a crazy-love moment between team and support system. But it was the Lakers' night. It was the Lakers' series. And most of all, it was the Lakers' opportunity, four victories in six games that helped them finally build some noticeable momentum heading into Sunday and the next step, finally play with the hint of consistency it will take to beat the tougher Jazz in the conference semifinals, and finally -- finally! -- escape with what remained of their hearing.

Typically, there are also worries -- the quick turnaround for a veteran team to Game 1 in Los Angeles, the presence of the hottest point guard in the league, Utah's Deron Williams, as if Los Angeles needs a better point guard than Russell Westbrook driving the ball down its throat, and the crowd in Salt Lake City that does loud pretty good itself. But this was a very encouraging last few days for the Lakers, with a blowout win at home on Tuesday and a griping close-out chance on Friday decided on Pau Gasol's layup with five-tenths of a second remaining following an offensive rebound. They even get the added schedule break, after the immediate hit of playing Sunday, of Game 2 on Tuesday and Game 3 not until Saturday.

No series in which three of the finishes were decided by five points or less, capped by the 95-94 margin in the clincher, can be considered a tune-up. The composed, resilient Thunder would not allow the two weeks of the 1-8 matchup to become a Lakers practice session. But it did offer the important benchmarks, most notably that L.A. did have substantial forward movement by the end, when any forward movement would have been noteworthy.

The end of the regular season, the earlier moments of the playoffs, were that concerning. The end of the series was that encouraging.

"There's still work to be done," Kobe Bryant said after going from 12 and 13 points the previous two outings to a game-high 32 in the clincher. "But we're pleased with where we are. Defensively, we feel like we're extremely solid. We went against a team, they have some stallions over there, man. They really do. They just get up and down the floor, and they're very unique in that way. We won't see another team that athletic the rest of the way. They broke us in the last game just by their speed. But all in all, I think our defense is solid.

"Every year in the playoffs, with every series what you try to do is get better. And this series forced us to play hard every possession, because Oklahoma demanded that from us. We feel like we're a better ball club for it."

The Lakers needed to be threatened. They always do. Easy isn't their thing, just like being challenged by the Mavericks late in the regular season for best record in the Western Conference prompted them to step on the gas, just like the scare from the Rockets in the 2009 conference semifinals became the shake-up call that turned into the championship.

In the 2010 postseason, it was the Thunder and their young legs causing the Lakers problems, because problems it what it takes for the Lakers to engage.

"There's still a ways to go for this team to really rally together to have the one-minded effort that I like to call it [to show] that we're really in sync with each other," coach Phil Jackson said. "I thought we got out of sync in the second half. Fortunately, we won this game. But it's something that I will really talk to them about in seriousness about collectively thinking about what they were doing out there on the floor. Awry passes, miss-timed things that went on, guys out of sync with one another on the defensive end. Those are the things that made this a close game."

Not to mention a close series.

The kind of close series that should help them moving forward, now that they are finally moving forward.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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