Posted May 14 2012 11:02AM
The last time the Thunder hooked up with the Lakers in a playoff series it was literally men against boys. A seasoned Lakers team was on its way to The Finals, the third of three consecutive trips, while the wide-eyed Thunder were dipping their 20-year old toes into the deep end of the playoff waters for the very first time.
What was supposed to be a quick lesson turned out to be a tougher than expected six-game series that birthed the Thunder team the Lakers will have to deal with now in the Western Conference semifinals. It's the same Thunder team that took down the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round and the same Thunder team that has grown up considerably since that 2010 matchup with the Lakers.
"We didn't know what to expect," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of that series three years ago. "We were just trying to trick you guys (the media) into thinking that we did. We were 20 years old and playing the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most storied franchises in the NBA. Our guys did a good job, we battled for six games and almost took it to seven games ... but we know how to win now and we know what to expect in the postseason."
The confidence the Thunder gained in that series against the Lakers has served as their fuel since then. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook haven't been the same, each of them rising up the All-Star ranks in the league since that coming out party. Durant was second to LeBron James in the voting for the KIA Most Valuable Player Award voting and both he and Westbrook were All-NBA picks last season.
But this is a much different Thunder team this time around than the Lakers saw in 2010. James Harden, the KIA Sixth Man Award Winner, and Serge Ibaka, the runner-up for the KIA Defensive Player of the Year Award, were rookies and still learning how to survive an 82-game schedule. Kendrick Perkins was still wearing a Celtics uniform, he swapped locker room stalls with Jeff Green last season, and veteran Thunder point guard Derek Fisher was starting alongside Kobe Bryant in the Lakers' backcourt.
The ties that bind these two teams are deep. They have that playoff history, of course, and Fisher won five titles with the Lakers. Westbrook and Harden are Los Angeles natives. Perkins played the Lakers in The Finals while he was with the Celtics, winning one and losing one in that storied rivalry. And who can forget that nasty elbow Metta World Peace dropped on Harden in their last matchup of the regular season, resulting in a concussion for Harden and a seven-game suspension for World Peace?
Even if the Thunder were reluctant to admit it, you have to know that deep down they wanted a piece of the Lakers from the moment the playoff draw was announced and they knew there was the potential for a meeting here in the conference semifinals.
You don't kick down all of the doors they have since 2010 and run away from what was staring them in the face this time around -- the Mavericks bounced them in five games in the Western Conference finals last year and the Thunder returned the favor with that first-round sweep.
That sweep and the Lakers' seven-game series with Denver did provide the Thunder with a unique dilemma in a lockout-shortened season that included a rugged condensed schedule. They had to find ways to keep their edge with an eight-day break between games.
"Sometimes it gets tough with this many days without a competitive game," said Fisher, whose seen a bit of everything having played 213 career playoff games. "You can start to lose that edge, that drive that you develop when you're playing games. We've had what I guess would be considered training camp-type practices. The attention has been up, the energy has been good. I think we've done the best job we can do, considering we haven't had a game, but there's nothing like a game."
And certainly nothing like the prospect of at least four playoff games against the Lakers.
Will the eight-day break be long enough for Kendrick Perkins to heal up from that right hip muscle strain?
No one knows for sure since the Thunder haven't given a formal status update on their starting center. But the days off had to have helped. They'll need him with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol coming to town.
Speaking of Bynum and Gasol, can the Lakers win if they disappear the way they did at times against the Nuggets?
No they cannot. The Thunder have many more weapons than the Nuggets and if you show any sign of weakness, they'll attack and finish you. Just ask the Mavericks. Playing the first four games of the series in a six-day span will test the Lakers' big men, too.
Will Metta World Peace need round-the-clock security in Oklahoma City?
It might not be a bad investment for the Lakers. The fans in Oklahoma City are as good as it gets, so there won't be any foolishness on their part. But World Peace has moved to the head of the villain list after showing little to no remorse for that wicked elbow he dropped on Harden, who shook it off and shined in that sweep of the Mavericks.
What's the Fisher Factor in this series?
Well, outside of their own spygate, the Thunder have the next best thing in Fisher. Other than maybe Phil Jackson, no one knows this Lakers team better than Fisher. He knows tendencies, plays and all the things the Lakers don't want an opponent to know. And that's half the battle for the Thunder.
Is there more pressure on Lakers coach Mike Brown or Thunder coach Scott Brooks in this series?
Few coaches in league history have faced the sort of scrutiny and pressure Brown has in taking over for the Zen Master. The playoffs only intensifies what Brown has dealt with all season. But expectations for the Thunder have gone through the roof since that sweep of the Mavericks. So Brown has a slight edge in the pressure department, but only a slight one.
Pick your poison. Durant, Westbrook and Harden are all capable of taking games over on the offensive end. When they are flowing and in a rhythm, they can blow you off the floor, the way they did the Mavericks in Game 3 on the road. As good as both Durant and Westbrook are, Harden might be the toughest player on the roster to stop because of the way he's used (who on a team's second unit can deal with him one-on-one?) and his ability to get to the rim and finish with either hand and stroke it from long distance.
That said, the Thunder's fate always rests on the decision-making of Westbrook, who set the tone in the Mavericks series by shredding whatever defense was thrown at him in the first two games. By the time you adjust to deal with him, someone else is going after you.
The Lakers continue to confuse. No other team can boast the length and skill they have in the twin-towers lineup of Bynum and Gasol, and yet they do not play through their big men on a consistent basis, openly negating whatever obvious advantage they have in the paint. Of course, Bynum and Gasol have been known to vanish from the action for long stretches, as they did against the Nuggets, leaving Bryant to decide between forcing the issue and involving them or simply forcing the issue.
The triangle offense that the Lakers leaned on so often in the Jackson-era has been replaced by the Bermuda Triangle offense, especially when the Lakers decide they don't feel like playing inside out.
What used to be a Durant-Westbrook affair now includes Harden, whose wicked performance in the fourth quarter of Game 4 against the Mavericks in the first round ranks as the most ridiculous one-man show we've seen so far in this postseason. Durant is still the No. 1 option and Westbrook will always get his opportunities, but now you have to legitimately worry about any one of the three of them taking over at crunch time.
We'll debate whether or not Bryant is "clutch" some other time. What you do know is that there is no chance that someone other than Bryant will decide the end of games for the Lakers, so long as he's on the floor. The ball flows through his hands and he'll either create for others, the way he did for Steve Blake, Gasol and others late in the Game 7 win over the Nuggets .
Fisher is the wild card for the Thunder in this series. He can impact this series without even playing huge minutes because of his knowledge of the Lakers and what it will take to get under their skin. Plus, you know he will be dialed in against his former team the way he was shown the door at the trade deadline. He played a key role in the sweep of the Mavericks and will do so again this time around.
Which Bynum shows up for this series? If the Bynum who was dominant for stretches throughout this season packs his bags for Oklahoma City, things will get very interesting, because they always have a size advantage when he and Gasol get going. But if the moody and disinterested Bynum shows up in Oklahoma City Monday night, the Lakers could be in trouble.
This series comes down to urgency, whose sense of "our time is now" is greater. The Lakers' championship window will close sooner, but they haven't been on alert in this postseason. The Thunder, on the other hand, are operating like a team that believes its season can end in one way and one way only, and that's with a Larry O'Brien trophy in hand. Thunder in six.
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