Kobe Bryant, left, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill can only watch in the final minutes… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
As he approached center court, Kobe Bryant offered handshakes to Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook. The greeting provided two figurative meanings.
Part of it involved Bryant's confidence. The Lakers had just defeated Oklahoma City in a six-game, first-round series in the 2010 NBA playoffs, confirming once again that experience and size beats youth and speed. Three playoff series later, Bryant would collect his fifth NBA championship ring.
But part of Bryant's handshakes also reflected his fear and respect for Oklahoma City. The Lakers had trouble keeping up with Westbrook. They struggled to keep their focus in the deafening din of the Thunder's rowdy arena. And for a team accustomed to waltzing through the first round of the NBA playoffs, the Lakers were forced to sharpen their game.
"They're going to be a team we're going to have to deal with for years to come," Bryant told ESPN's Lisa Salters immediately after the Lakers' series-clinching win.
In just a two-year span, the changing of the guard has already taken place. Some may not have anticipated the Lakers' 119-90 Game 1 loss Monday to the Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals because of the score. But they anticipated the outcome. The Lakers had already entered this series as nearly unanimous underdogs and they offered little reason in Game 1 to alter that perception. Meanwhile, the changes that have taken place since the Lakers eliminated the Thunder in the 2010 NBA playoffs have been drastic.
The Lakers can't lean on the calmness that Phil Jackson provided. Instead, they're hoping Mike Brown's Xs and O's will be enough. The Lakers no longer have Ron Artest, who routinely gave scorers fits. They have Metta World Peace, who only occasionally does that. The Lakers don't have a trusty bench leader in Lamar Odom. They instead have the league's worst reserve unit. Their veteran experience is no longer mostly a virtue.
Oh, the Lakers have improved in some areas since the 2010 playoffs. Kobe Bryant isn't hobbling on a sprained right knee and has remained his dominant self. Andrew Bynum went from a complementary inside presence who struggled staying healthy to the Lakers' All-Star center. The Lakers also upgraded at point guard by acquiring Ramon Sessions and shipping off Derek Fisher.
But even those improvements appear limiting. Bryant's high-scoring outbursts during losses in Games 5 and 6 to Denver in the first round show that the Lakers can't depend on him to single-handedly carry the team. Bynum has proved he can stay healthy, but he hasn't proved he will always try hard. Sessions' scoring (two points) and defense (Westbrook dropped 27) show the Lakers improvements at point guard aren't necessarily game-changing.
Meanwhile, the Thunder has improved in nearly every way imaginable.
The team's core has improved drastically. Westbrook remains just as fast, but he appears more efficient in scoring (averaging 23.6 points this season after averaging 16.1 points two years ago). Durant collected the league's scoring title this season just as he did two years ago. But he's less intimidated by World Peace (scored 25 points on eight-of-16 shooting in Game 1) than he was with Artest (averaged 25 points on just 35% shooting in the 2010 playoffs). Reserve forward James Harden remained such a non-factor in the 2010 NBA playoffs (scoring two points or less in three of the six games in the series). But he's such a huge factor now that he's become the league's sixth man of the year, and World Peace feels he needs to bully him.
The Thunder also added experience to complement its youthful roster. The Celtics rid themselves of Kendrick Perkins in hopes of shedding age. The Thunder happily acquired him last year in a trade and became instantly more physical. The Lakers rid themselves of Fisher to shed salary and the awkward situation if he would have had to begin coming off the bench. But he has happily assumed that role with Oklahoma City, providing a clutch playoff presence and locker room leadership the Lakers once had.
Now the Lakers are left scrambling on how to react. Oh, they'll fight back, make adjustments and extend this series beyond a sweep. But that's just delaying the inevitable. Oklahoma City will soon collect three more wins to validate what Bryant feared two years ago as he shook hands with the Thunder elite.
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