Western foes go big to challenge L.A.
NEW YORK -- Ever since Oklahoma City was eliminated from the first round of the playoffs by Los Angeles' Pau Gasol on a last-second Game 6 putback, it's been hard for Kevin Durant to watch anything basketball-related. Why? Because he would inevitably hear something about those Lakers.
"It was tough," Durant said Thursday at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, where the 2009-10 scoring champ was on hand as a special NBA draft correspondent for NBA TV. "I would go places, and I had to watch it because that was the only thing on TV. It was tough to watch it. I was very upset; it fueled me to keep working."
The way he sees it, if Kobe Bryant misses the shot that preceded Pau's putback just a little bit harder, or if Serge Ibaka boxes out just a little bit better, Gasol can't grab the rebound. Then the Thunder are playing the Lakers in a Game 7, where anything can happen.
"I think we're close," Durant said, able to enjoy the basketball-related activity that was unfolding before his eyes for the first time in 55 days, as his team stocked up to make a run at the back-to-back champs.
"The Western Conference is so good," he continued. "There's so many good teams, the Lakers of course being the top team, [but] I think we're closer than people think."
They got even closer after picking up two big men to combat the Lakers' front line -- Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Gasol -- which is bigger, longer and stronger than just about all of its competition in the league.
Oklahoma City addressed the one area it was lacking compared to the rest of their cradle of young talent, acquiring the 6-11 Cole Aldrich out of Kansas by giving up a pair of first-round picks to New Orleans (and taking on Morris Peterson) and by adding the 7-1 Tibor Pleiss from Germany in a trade with Atlanta, giving up cash.
Durant will be free to shoot his jumpers; Russell Westbrook will revel in driving the ball down the other team's throat; Jeff Green will do a little bit of both; and Aldrich, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year who has broken his nose and lost a tooth battling in the trenches down low, will make the dirty work his life's work.
"The biggest thing to my game is shot-blocking, defending and rebounding," Aldrich said. "You know, I'm kind of a unique big guy who loves to go and bang other big guys and kind of do the dirty work. It's a characteristic of me, a guy that loves to go and get in the trenches and just fight for my team."
Ibaka blocked shots against the Lakers, Nick Collison took charges and Nenad Krstic tried to draw Gasol and Bynum further away from the basket than they liked to set up on defense, but none of them came in with a mentality like Aldrich has. Just like the Lakers were taught to be tough by the Boston Celtics in the 2008 Finals, the Thunder's front office were taught what it takes to assemble a championship team by being edged by L.A.
While the Thunder are the trendy pick to make the biggest leap toward the top of the West next season (they were the No. 8 seed this year, but their 50 wins were only seven fewer than the Lakers had), Oklahoma City is not the only team that realizes it needs to bulk up to stay with L.A.
Suns coach Alvin Gentry, speaking at a team draft function some 2,400 miles away in Phoenix, said it best: "You can never have too much size. You saw that in the Lakers series."
As much as the draft is about filling in the holes in a team's roster, it's also about keeping an eye on the roster that you're trying to unseat. Even if a team is still a step or two away from a championship, the Lakers have set a model to follow: Go big or go home (early from the playoffs).
Pacific Division foe Sacramento selected Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins, a 6-11, 270-pound forward with a nasty streak, to fill the void created when they dealt Spencer Hawes last week. Hawes gave the Lakers fits on the offensive end (averaging 17.3 points on 48.3 percent shooting last year against L.A. when his averages were 10.0 on 46.8 for the year) but was a lost cause trying to go against the Lakers' bigs. Pacific Division bottom-feeder Golden State also went big with Ekpe Udoh, a 6-9, 237-pound shot blocker out of Baylor.
Looking ahead to next season, outside of Oklahoma City, it's tough to figure out who the Lakers' biggest threat really is. Phoenix took them to six games in the conference finals, but Amare Stoudemire could be leaving via free agency. Dallas tried the size thing by adding Brendan Haywood to a team with Erick Dampier in the middle to make up for Dirk Nowitzki's 7-foot 3-point-launching ways, and they remain a potential pothole for L.A.
San Antonio will always have a chance against L.A. because of Tim Duncan, and they also took a chance on the 6-11 Ryan Richards from England with the No. 49 pick, because that's what you do when you have to play against L.A. The jury is still out on Utah until Carlos Boozer makes a decision. Portland is a sleeping giant because nobody knows whether their giant, Greg Oden, can play a full season. Denver didn't have any picks Thursday, but the reason they rattle the Lakers routinely is their tough and tall trio of Nene, Chris Andersen and Kenyon Martin.
The Lakers looked to keep pace Thursday, adding the 6-9 Devin Ebanks out of West Virginia with the No. 43 pick and the 6-9 Derrick Caracter out of UTEP with the No. 58 pick, choosing to go big even when they have three guards, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and Derek Fisher, who all are ready to test free agency.
As Durant spoke before the draft started, his distaste for what the Lakers did to his team started to be replaced by the excitement of what Oklahoma City can do against them the next chance they get.
"That series really showed who we were as a group and gave us a little confidence as well," Durant said. "The Lakers are a great team, a championship team every year, and we proved that we can play with those guys."
And now that they have more size, they could just be ready to prove they're ready to rise above the champs.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers and Clippers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.