March 29, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts after a 3-point shot in the second half of the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center. Thunder won 102-93. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Before we look ahead to the Spurs fully however, let's take one last look at what transpired and what we can hope to glean for the future.
"Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt
We are of complex minds and complex thoughts, so let us take a look at all three.
(If you would like to see the Round 1 post-mortem, go HERE)
I. The People
The Thunder vs Lakers match-up, it could be argued, was one three-headed monster versus another. Regardless of who else did what, these are the three men that decided the series' fate.
- Kevin Durant - Durant sought to recover from an uneven affair in the first round. He had been doggedly chased around the entire court by Shawn Marion for four games, so no doubt he was looking for respite. Instead he was faced with Metta World Peace, an entirely different type of defender who wanted to use his strength and guile to take KD out of the game. To Durant's enduring credit, he showed tremendous patience and composure as he got pushed around by MWP and only waited until the moments were right to go and attack. As a result, Durant shot 51.6% from the floor for the series while grabbing almost 9 rebounds per game, and topped things off by hitting two game-winners. The superstar never got rattled, and neither did OKC.
- Russell Westbrook - Westbrook was every bit as important as his co-leader because he was the one guy who had a clear advantage over everyone who faced off against him. Westbrook is an L.A. guy who went to school at UCLA, so you know he took this one personally. Westbrook was the driving catalyst behind the Thunder offense, scoring less than 20 only once and committing a paltry 4 turnovers throughout the series. L.A. had no answer for him from beginning to end.
- James Harden - Harden was the man who was on the receiving end of a World Peace elbow and there fore was often part of the general storyline as to what the Lakers were going to try to do. While some of the play was physical, things never got nasty. Despite this however, Harden struggled for most of the series, plagued by fouls as he tried to defend Kobe. While he still did a good job helping the offense, it was a step down in Harden's performance.
- Kobe Bryant - Kobe has turned into a two-sided enigma that the Lakers cannot solve. I am reminded of something once written by NFL scribe Dr. Z - Kobe has become a player who is good enough to keep both teams in games. As productive and breathtaking as he might be in quarters 1 through 3, it was his struggles in the 4th quarter that allowed the Thunder to chase down and overtake the Lakers in Games 2 and 4. This is who Kobe has become, and this is who Kobe will continue to be.
- Andrew Bynum - Bynum entered the series as one guy who could legitimately punish the smaller Thunder front line, and his performance in the series will probably not get enough post-analysis as it should. The easy story is that Kobe took over the offense when he should have kept feeding Bynum, but that story really isn't accurate, because the Thunder did a good job limiting Bynum's ability to operate unencumbered. He couldn't get open in the 4th, and Kobe stopped waiting for him to try.
- Pau Gasol - Gasol looks like he's ready to leave L.A., and he played like it.
II. The Events
Game 1: This Looks Easy
The Thunder and Lakers entered into the series with a few theories floating about - the Thunder were too athletic, too determined, too hungry, to be slowed down by the Lakers. By the time the 3rd quarter was over and the Thunder were leading by 30, we were all humming to U2. It was like ordering a mint chocolate chip ice cream and then discovering the the sugar cone was thrown in for free.
Game 2: This May Not Be So Easy
With the Thunder looking like they had rocket propulsion in their Nike's and the Lakers looking old and tired, there was only one thing that we knew that could disrupt our flow - if the Lakers tried to slow the game down. Heading into the 4th quarter and the Thunder sitting on a whopping 60 points total, consider the game 'slowed.' The Lakers, not playing well by any stretch, never-the-less had seemed to figure out how to disrupt the Thunder attack. Up by seven with 2:08 to play, OKC fans wondered if the Thunder, looking so dominant a game before, were about to lose home court advantage. Fortunately for us all, the Thunder did again what they had done before. The Thunder D said, 'no more,' and Durant said, 'my turn.'
Game 3: Joey Crawford
The Thunder let Game 3 slip away, and the one thing that fans will remember from this one is that the Lakers attempted 42 free throws in the game and won by 3 points.
This is the thing I will remember though - it is not so much the fact that the refs 'handed' the Lakers this game even if it felt like it. The problem rather is that NBA fans looked at the referees working the night, saw the name 'Joey Crawford,' and immediately had an assumption as for how the game would turn out. This to me is the biggest problem that the NBA has when addressing its referees and the notorious claim that the league 'wants' certain teams to win. It doesn't matter whether it is true; what matters is that a majority of fans 'think' that it is, and that perception overrides reality and as a byproduct crushes the league's credibility. And then Crawford works a critical game, Kobe goes to the line 18 times, and the theory of the invisible hand of Stern rolls forward.
Game 4: Kevin Durant > Kobe Bryant
This was to be the game that decided the series. OKC could either seize control of the Lakers' fates, or the entire thing could suddenly become a potential seven game nail-biter. The Lakers, playing their best basketball of the series, took a nine point lead into the 4th and stretched it out to 13. They seemed to have the game in hand. Despite Westbrook's determination on offense, it appeared that it would be for naught. And then suddenly, midway through the 4th, the Thunder reminded everyone of who they were. The Lakers played 40 minutes of Lakers ball, and the Thunder played 8 minutes of Thunder ball, yet those 8 minutes were enough to eviscerate the Lakers' 40. OKC raced by the Lakers, Durant looked history in the eye, and buried the Lakers almost for good. Sometimes the best swagger is no swagger at all.
Game 5: Say Goodnight, Sweet Lakers
Kobe Bryant performed the equivalent of Tony Montana's last stand. The thing about this game was, we all knew it wasn't going to be enough. No matter what Kobe did, and he did do quite a bit, all OKC had to do was bide their time, wait for this ammunition to run out, and then stamp out the Lakers once and for all. Once the 4th quarter began, the chambers were empty. Say hello and goodnight, my little friend.
III. The Ideas
This semi-final series really began two years ago when the upstart Thunder took on the championship favorite Lakers and ran LA to within a second of facing a seventh game. When Durant and company looked on as the Lakers walked off the court victorious, there was a resignation and resolve on their faces; a resignation that they were not yet quite good enough, but a resolve that one day soon they would be. Last season Dallas denied OKC the chance for immediate revenge, but in 2012 the stars were in alignment for the Thunder youngsters to show Kobe & Company how far they had truly come. Five games later, there is no question which team waxes and which team wanes.
It is both comforting and assuring that this progression is the way of sports. The kings stays the king until he cannot keep the new kid on the block off of his hill. Detroit supplants Boston, Chicago supplants Detroit, the Spurs jump over the Lakers, etc. Victory always is a little more sweet when you know that your vanquished foe is the same one that taught you the initial lessons.
From a more personal perspective, I have enjoyed rooting against the Lakers for over 25 years now. When I was but a wee lad, a grown-up NBA fan once asked me, "who is your favorite player?" Since I knew basically nothing about the NBA at that point, I thought back to the cover of a Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine and immediately blurted out, "Patrick Ewing!"
You might think that grown-ups are at an age past mocking 10 year olds for simply stating a personal preference. You would be wrong. This gent ridiculed me for my naivete and concluded his lecture by stating, "There are really only two options you have when I ask you that question. 'Magic' or 'Bird.' Only two, so choose one now." Even though without context both of those names sounded positively absurd, I went with 'Bird.' From that moment on, the Lakers became my NBA enemy #1.
Over the next twenty seasons, I took great joy in rooting against the Lakers, whether they were led by Magic Johnson, Shaq, Kobe Bryant, or even Cedric Ceballos. I reveled as Michael Jordan dominated them in 1990. I cheered hard for the Pacers, the Kings, the Spurs, and even the Nets in the hope that one of them would stop the Shaq-Kobe freight train. I cheered in ecstasy when the 2008 Boston Celtics wiped LA off the map with a Game 6- 39 point Title-clinching win. I was furious when a Kendrick Perkins-less Celtics couldn't grab a defensive rebound and lost the 2010 Finals to an inferior Lakers team. Rooting against the Lakers, as much as anything else that has transpired, has defined my existence as an NBA fan.
Some comic book aficionados claim that the existence of a superhero and his identifiable traits are defined precisely by the type of enemy that he must face. So as the Lakers have moved along though history, I adopted many superheros who were supposed to vanquish them, only to fail in the end. And yet, now in 2012, I have a team, my new adopted team in the Thunder, a superhero that was ready and willing to put to an end my childhood mortal NBA enemy. OKC did it in resounding fashion. The good guys at last had won.
Now that I sit on the other side of the valley, still waiting to see what this season's narrative holds for championship contenders, I cannot help but look back and consider what my arch villain Lakers are now. They're beaten, broken, and about to be splintered apart like a piece of glass. My enemy is no more.
The Lakers are dead. Long live the Lakers.
Unless, of course, they are reborn in the most ironic of ways - with a capital 'S' on their chests.