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Ready or not, Lakers set for series opener with motivated Thunder

Less than two days after beating Denver, the Lakers play Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals. The Thunder hasn't played since sweeping Dallas on May 5.

May 13, 2012|By Mike Bresnahan
  • Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries to protect the ball from the long reach of Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha during a regular-season game at Staples Center.
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries to protect the ball from the long reach of… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

The Lakers-Oklahoma City series was already going to be rollicking, a classic case of young versus old. Then came the bonuses from the basketball lords the last two months.

Derek Fisher ended up with the Thunder after being traded by the Lakers in March. James Harden took an elbow to the side of the head from Metta World Peace last month.

Welcome to the newly refurbished Western Conference semifinals.

The Thunder has awaited this matchup longer than the nine days since its first-round sweep of Dallas. It goes back to April 22, when World Peace earned his seven-game suspension and the ire of everybody in the NBA's newest city.

"It's going to be intense," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. "The crowd's obviously going to have a field day with that and I'm sure their players will generate some type of energy from it. For us, we've just got to keep our poise and do what we do."

There's also the Fisher factor.

He was traded by the Lakers in a straight salary dump, his former team so eager to get rid of the $3.4 million he was owed next season that it also included a first-round draft pick to appease Houston.

Fisher, 37, wasn't pleased. He told the Rockets to waive him and, sure, keep the millions he was due next season just to let him sign with a contender.

He ended up with the Thunder, where he averaged 4.9 points in the regular season and 8.3 points in the playoffs.

Now he's gunning for his sixth championship ring, which would put him ahead of you know who.

"It's like brothers," said Bryant, Fisher's teammate for 12½ seasons. "You compete with your brother. Somebody's got to win and you'd rather it be you. Somebody's going to have bragging rights in the summertime."

Two years ago, when Bryant and Fisher were still teammates, Oklahoma City gave the Lakers all sorts of problems in the first round before falling in six games.

Pau Gasol's last-second tip of Bryant's miss turned an apparent Game 6 loss into a 95-94 victory with the flick of two hands.

"I kept battling, kept hustling," Gasol said at the time, and he'll have to do more of it this series.

Oklahoma City is all grown up now, if that can even be said about a team with a ridiculous nucleus of under-25 guys.

Kevin Durant is 24 years old. Russell Westbrook is 23. Serge Ibaka and Harden are 22. Kendrick Perkins, the old man of the group, is 27.

The Thunder lost to Dallas in last year's West finals and finished second in the West this season, six games ahead of the Lakers.

"They're going to be fighting and scratching and clawing that much harder because they're starting to taste what their goal needs to be just a little bit," Lakers Coach Mike Brown said. "So we're going to have to play better. It has to be better than what it was in this [first-round] series. Yes, sir."

Added Bryant, after a laugh: "Yeah, just a little."

The Lakers had seven games' worth of practicing for the speed of Westbrook thanks to Denver point guard Ty Lawson. The Lakers are also now used to an active frontcourt, with special gratitude to Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee.

"We'll win this championship if we commit to defense," Andrew Bynum said after collecting a playoff career-high 18 rebounds and blocking six shots in Game 7.

The problem is Durant. Nobody on the Nuggets came close to his skill level. World Peace will be matched up against Durant, though that hasn't always worked out so well.

After the Lakers were drilled by the Thunder in February, 100-85, Bryant marveled at Durant, who had 33 points.

"Oklahoma does a fantastic job over there," he said at the time. "They do a great job of putting [Durant] in the right place so he doesn't have to work too much."

It was also a hint to the Lakers' coaching staff: Help me.

Bryant is in a better mind-set these days, averaging 29.1 points and shooting 44.8% in the first round, a bump from his 43% regular-season average.

He showed rare on-court joy in Game 7, drilling a fadeaway three-pointer with 48.3 seconds left, falling into the courtside seats, popping up and high-fiving fans as he ran to the other end.

The issue in Oklahoma City is really rest.

The Thunder will have had 215 hours of recovery time between games. The Lakers? Barely 45 hours.

"It's something we can't think about," Brown said. "We don't have time to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves."

It's probably a good way to act. Sympathy and Oklahoma City just don't seem to go together.

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this report.

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