Posted May 22 2012 9:33AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The crowd stood in full roar the final 16 seconds as the Thunder crossed half court and dribbled out the remnants of Game 5, a celebration that was longer and maybe louder than anything that had gone on before Monday night, if that's possible.
Kevin Durant walked from the bench down the sideline to share a handshake with the defeated Lakers coach, Mike Brown, as time was still running out. Daequan Cook stopped on his way to the locker room to sign a ticket stub for a fan, an uncommon act of kindness the likes of which are common here. General manager Sam Presti, content to stay in the background despite a starring role in the franchise ascension to title contender, stood among the customers at a corner of the court to shake hands and slap backs with players and staff as they exited the stage.
This was their moment of celebration, the players, management, coaches and fans. They defeated the Lakers in Game 5 at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Monday night and took the series. That is an important point.
This was the Thunder winning. Not the Lakers losing.
The Thunder played as the experience-heavy ones, the ones that knew how to play with composure on the biggest nights of the season. Oklahoma City's stars didn't have to be prodded to play hard before it was too late. They played sleek and scrappy. The Thunder became the Lakers.
That may get lost outside of the state in the next few days. While the newly eliminated Lakers are dissected nationally for their failures, the Thunder will go silent while prepping for Sunday in San Antonio and the start of the Western Conference finals.
But the Thunder made this happen.
Four wins in five tries. Two resounding wins, including the 106-90 Game 5 victory despite 42 points from Kobe Bryant in the gym rightly known as Loud City (population: 18,203). Two clutch wins while handling the pressure late in the fourth quarter that their opponent did not.
"I don't know if it is extra satisfaction," said Derek Fisher, the former Laker and current Thunder backup point guard. "But for a team like ours that is continuing to develop, the ability to close games, be smart down the stretch, understand shot selection, which shots to take and which shots not to take down the stretch, I think it helps you to feel confident about your abilities to not just win in the first round or the second round, but to win any game that you need to win as long as you're playing smart and playing good defense."
Which makes them very ready for the Spurs, the hottest team in the league.
"We obviously have some days here ahead of us to continue to prepare," Fisher said. "It's a great opportunity to improve. In my experience, what has separated some of the teams I've been on from others is our ability to improve actually during the playoffs. We have several days here to get better and keep working hard."
Sweeping the Mavericks in the first round was impressive, with fourth-quarter survival then as well. But the semifinal victory against the Lakers was even more telling.
Now the Thunder know exactly what it takes to advance to The Finals. They know because they were almost there a year ago, only to be eliminated by championship-bound Dallas. They especially know because the Thunder just handled the Lakers the way a legit title contender should.
"The experience that we had last year can help, but we still have to go out and execute the game plan and play well and get some great defensive possessions and make shots," coach Scott Brooks said. "We know San Antonio is probably playing the best -- well, they are. They're playing the best basketball for the last three months of the season."
That's the part that will not get lost the next few days, about how the deep, talented Spurs are refueling in advance of Sunday. It is the biggest challenge yet of these playoffs for Oklahoma City.
But at least they have the new confidence of beating two other teams, the Mavericks and Lakers, with championship experience.
That wasn't so much the Lakers losing Monday night, after all. That was the Thunder winning.
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