The last time the Los Angeles Lakers played the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs was during L.A.’s most recent title run, and it came in the first round.
Back then, the Lakers were the wily, still-more-talented-than-you, heart-felt, Phil Jackson-led team that saw everything go their way in the most opportune moments. The Oklahoma City Thunder? They were the feel-good eight seed that finished with a ridiculous 50-win season, in their second year of existence as a franchise, while boasting one of the youngest, most promising roster lineups at the time.
When Pau Gasol effectively ended the tough, physical, trying playoff series with a Game 6 go-ahead tip-in for the win with 0.5 seconds remaining, the crowd gave the OKC Thunder a well-deserved standing ovation and the talks about the future of the OKC Thunder were immediately positive.
“It is going to be an enjoyable matchup for the next several years. We look forward to these types of challenges,” Kobe Bryant had said after knocking off the the Thunder in the 2010 playoffs.
Metta World Peace, too, gave the Thunder some credit: “Thunder, don’t change nothing. Don’t do it. I’m mean, I would like for you to change something…but don’t be like other teams that go and change their team, you know? Man, don’t change it; just keep it going. They’ve got young players. Don’t change anything.”
Well, with the exception of upgrading Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins, they kind of followed your advice, Ron-Ron.
And now here they are, two years later, ready to give you guys hell.
We saw this coming; we would have been damned if this team wasn’t poised for a title run by now and, hell, they were poised for a title run last season when they got to the Western Conference Finals and were eliminated by the Dallas Mavericks.
So what changed? On a superficial level, absolutely nothing. The team still boasts Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant as their primary offensive options, James Harden is still coming off the bench and Serge Ibaka is still giving guys who live in the paint hell.
But if you look past the roster line-ups on ESPN.com? If you ignore the box scores, and watched the Thunder developed?
Then, holy crap, everything changed.
Russell Westbrook can’t be messed with on the perimeter anymore; the entire 2010 playoff series with the Lakers saw Kobe give Russell all the damn space he wanted to take a jump-shot and Russell, still raw, clanged in jumpers or just handed it off for someone else to deal with. And these days? Russell’s work ethic, a trademark thing he had going for him coming out of UCLA, helped him to develop a nice perimeter game while also being able to penetrate smarter and not as wildly; the dude’s reigned in his talent and he is no longer faster than the ball he’s dribbling.
Kevin Durant? He was too busy getting blanked by Metta World Peace, since he hadn’t developed his ball-handling skills and his penetration wasn’t anywhere near what it is today, nor was he shooting particularly well that series with World Peace, then Ron Artest, giving him absolutely no breathing room. Now? He’s challenging the best player in the NBA for an MVP title, finding ways to score beyond his outside shooting and is coming into his own defensively, as is the entire squad.
James Harden? He wasn’t consistent coming off the bench, partly due to consistent minutes and partly due to the fact that he isn’t as good at creating his shots as well as he is now, and he was nowhere near as damn good of a shot creator for others as he is now. Plus, no one was even discussing, back then, him earning a max contract as a friggin’ sixth man.
And Serge Ibaka? He’s become as dominant as they come at the 4 — and even the pivot, if you’d like to stick him there, too — and swats as many shots as JaVale McGee does (but, unlike McGee, they normally aren’t counted as two points for the opposition). His midrange game has gotten remarkably better and he poses ten times more of a threat offensively than he did two years ago.
And then the rest of the team followed suit.
Now here they are: The first time the Thunder played the Lakers in the postseason, the Lakers were favored, but barely, to eliminate a scrappy, young Thunder squad that would “be a contender for years to come.”
And in a two-year turnaround? All of a sudden, the Lakers aren’t favorited to win a playoff series since their 2007 loss to the Phoenix Suns and the Thunder, now, are considered the contenders while the Lakers are slowly moving out of their prime and into the sunset.
(Until the Lakers do something ridiculous that sets them up for the next five years, that is, which seems to be the protocol in El Segundo, CA.)
The Laker fan-base isn’t optimistic at all; it seems as if Laker fans worldwide have come to grips with the reality that, no, this team is no longer better than the Thunder, a team we essentially broke into the league by giving them their first taste of true, legitimate defeat at the most painful level two years ago.
I don’t know what’ll happen tonight, between 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. I have no idea if Metta World Peace can handle Kevin Durant these days, nor if Kobe Bryant will be able to keep up with Russell Westbrook as he did in 2010, nor if Andrew Bynum will finally exact revenge while healthy on Kendrick Perkins (who, ironically, is also injured), a dude that seems to get under Bynum’s skin with his intense demeanor and physicality, nor if Pau Gasol will be able to pull off another magical series resulting in four wins.
But we saw this coming, two years in advance, even. Then, it was “we’ll worry about the Oklahoma City Thunder later on.” Now? That’s all on Lakers’ fans’ minds right now.
I don’t know about you, but these Lakers, as underdogs, against a team they eliminated just two years prior with all its returning pieces? It’ll be a sight to see.
Something tells me neither of these teams would want it any other way.