Lakers might have a new rival
The Thunder proved an exciting and energetic opponent against L.A.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- It can certainly survive without them, but NBA basketball, particularly in the postseason, craves rivalries. Since the heyday of L.A. versus Boston, the Lakers have floated through a few: Detroit, Sacramento, San Antonio and Denver, all in varying degrees of intensity, importance and satisfaction.
On Friday night, the Lakers eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder in a tension-filled 95-94 Game 6 win, pushing them through into a second-round matchup with Utah, starting Sunday at Staples. For the Lakers, it was the first step in what is expected to be, at worst, a third straight trip to the NBA Finals. For the Thunder, it was the franchise's first playoff appearance since '04-'05, when they still played in the shadow of the Space Needle in Seattle.
It was on many levels a monumentally entertaining series. Even better, it has the potential to mark the start of the next big rivalry in the Western Conference.
"It's going to be an enjoyable matchup for the next several years," Kobe Bryant said afterward. "Durant and Westbrook, Green, and the crew that they have -- they've done such a phenomenal job building this team through the draft. The people here are great, and their fans are exceptional."
Fans should hope he's right.
The Thunder are young, athletic and determined, piling up floor burns like they do fast-break dunks. They're just cracking open their window, and they provide a perfect foil for a Lakers team hoping to pile up as many titles as possible before their own window slams shut. There are no guarantees, of course. The Thunder may have incredible reserves of talent, plus cap space and draft picks to spare, but keeping everyone on the same page as expectations and egos grow isn't easy.
"I've played for five coaches in seven years now, two ownership groups, two different GMs, so I've seen a lot, and this is the most cohesive unit I've been around," said veteran forward Nick Collison, who has been around long enough to know the flavor of the month doesn't always become a regular feature on the menu.
"I think our challenge going forward is to realize what brought us success this year, and it's kind of that attitude. Hopefully rationally guys will understand that the better the team does the better everybody's careers go. I think hopefully you realize the way to be successful is the way we've done them this year."
If the Thunder can manage to stay on the rails, this year's loss will only benefit them. Particularly Kevin Durant, who shot the ball horribly Friday night and needed a pair of fourth-quarter baskets to finish 5-of-23 from the floor. It was a night frustrating enough to have Oklahoma City's young superstar looking toward the heavens for guidance as misses piled up. For the series, Durant averaged 24.8 points, more than five under his season average, and shot only 38 percent.
Bryant, who endured criticism from media and teammates after shooting a miserable 7-of-23 in Games 4 and 5 of L.A.'s 4-1 series loss to the Utah Jazz during his rookie year, certainly understands the value of failure.
"I think it gives you inner toughness, when you've been through battles and you don't come out on top, I think it makes you more determined," he said of Durant's tough night. "And I think ultimately it makes you more resilient, so when you do get to the position where you're the defending champion and you're playing for something, you want it even more because you understand what it feels like to fail."
Durant, recalling Bryant's postseason struggles, spoke in terms that should remind Lakers fans of a more youthful Bryant.
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"I'm a competitor. I want to win every game I play. I want to be a champion. I work so hard, we work so hard as a group that I think every time we step on the floor we should win," Durant said. "It's how we get through the down times that's going to make us better, and that's how it is as an individual as well. I'm looking forward to coming back next year and playing my butt off every game -- being a better leader than I was this year, being a better player."
That Durant didn't shy away from his responsibilities as a star earned him the respect of the man who in no small part caused his misery.
"When you're the main player, you can't go 5-for-10 and lose. You got to go 5-for-23; you got to shoot," Ron Artest said. "You're supposed to do that. He did that against my defense, and that showed that, when he gets better, I better hope I'm not old. He'll probably light me up for 40 points. He went out like a soldier like he's supposed to go out."
Durant leads an appealing group of players who seem genuinely committed to one another. Their practices are an exercise in collegial enthusiasm unseen anywhere else in the league. They play in a city filled with arguably the NBA's most enthusiastic fans in a building with the nicest support staff you'll ever meet.
They're a potential rival that fans can appreciate because the quality of player and play alike is high, making the games, in turn, entertaining. That's in contrast to the more visceral, angry emotional response generated by a team like the Nuggets.
The Thunder also gave the Lakers, who were unfocused and inconsistent if they were anything over the course of the regular season, a boost that might lift them through the rest of the Western Conference bracket, assuming the physical toll of winning wasn't too high.
"This series forced us to play hard every possession," Bryant said. "Because Oklahoma demanded that from us. We feel like we're a better ballclub for it."
The Lakers won't see another team as athletic as Oklahoma City for the rest of the playoffs, and as savvy and strong as Utah and, looking ahead, San Antonio are, neither is as good or active defensively as the Thunder.
It took six games for the champs to rid themselves of the upstarts. If the Thunder continue on their path, future series -- knock on wood that they come along -- aren't likely to be shorter.