In the end, despite the closeness of two games, the better team won, and the better team was the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Led by 20-somethings Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the Thunder ran past the veteran Los Angeles Lakers in five games, capped with a 106-90 victory Monday night in front of a home crowd that was so rowdy seven people ended up getting shot afterward not far from the arena.
That aside, it was a monumental night for OKC, which in 2010 was knocked out of the playoffs by the Lakers. Since then, the Thunder got wiser and better and L.A. got older and slower. And the contrast was apparent, especially in the closing minutes of the games.
For all Kobe Bryant could do — and he was spectacular with 42 points Monday night on 33 shots — he was not properly aided by his teammates, especially big men Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The younger, more fleet and athletic Oklahoma City big men were quicker to the ball and limited the bigger, stronger L.A. front line to three measly offensive rebounds. Not good.
Meanwhile, Westbook and Durant ran amok again against Steve Blake and Metta World Peace, scoring at will in transition and in half-court sets. OKC earned its right to face San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals.
“The better team won,” World Peace said. It was a simple statement, but it was powerful. And because the Thunder is loaded with youth and talent, it stands to reason OKC will be a major player in the Western Conference for years to come.
As for the Lakers, questions abound. Bryant, at 33, has played a lot of basketball and his body has been tormented. But his brilliance and grit are undeniable. He needs youth and equal grit to play alongside him, and he just does not have enough of it.
Still, he insists, ”I’m not fading into the shadows. I’m not going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere.”
If anyone is going some place, it could be Gasol, the big man who averaged just 12 points against OKC.
“Obviously when you’re down and you’re losing and you see yourself out of the playoffs, you get frustrated,” Gasol said of his relationship with Bryant. “Our relationship is good. We expect a lot out of each other. What he brings to the table is very unique and he’s one of the greatest that’s ever played.”
Said Bynum: “I definitely want to stay. I really think I’m going to be back next year. I can’t say the same for everyone but I do know that I’m going to come back and be a better player.”
Bryant will be 34 next season and will travel to Germany again for another innovative, non-invasive procedure on his habitually sore right knee. He was masterful in Game 5, making 18 of 33 shots. But the Lakers’ point guard situation remains an issue; Ramon Sessions was not the elixir.
Oklahoma City has a lot on its side; immense talent (Durant, Westbrook, Harden), youthful energy and athleticism, sound coaching (Scott Brooks) and a confidence having wiped out the Lakers that should help them in the next round.