May 1, 2010, 4:46 AM EDT
Chin up, Oklahoma City. Sure, losing sucks, we get that. But you have to learn how to win in the NBA playoffs — people remember Michael Jordan the champion, not the guy who lost to the Detroit Pistons three straight years on the playoffs.
Enjoy the ride, you have a fun team, a special team. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are captivating to watch. The Thunder have become what the Phoenix Suns were five years ago — everybody’s second favorite team. They took a big first step.
But for the Lakers this was just another step, albeit one they had to fight for. LA won the game 95-94, and the series 4-2. Next up for the Lakers is the Utah Jazz, starting Sunday at Staples Center.
The Lakers taught the Thunder some hard lessons. LA’s star Kobe Bryant saved his best game for an elimination game, Kevin Durant did not. Pau Gasol knew how to time a sneak inside for a game-winning putback, Serge Ibaka did not box him out, he lost track of fundamentals in the clutch. Derek Fisher knew how to step up and hit big threes, Russell Westbrook did not.
It will not be that way in a couple years. It was tonight.
The Lakers largely did what they had done in game four — they controlled the tempo and took away a lot of the Thunders’ easy baskets. The Thunder had just 13 fast break points, and forced into the halfcourt they shot just 36.5 percent, 26.3 percent from three.
The Lakers, however, were lighting it up from three. The last two games the Lakers did much better about setting up angles for entry passes to the post, or getting the ball inside off penetration, and that led to kick-outs and good look threes for LA. They hit 12 of 24 from three in this one, and shot 46.8 percent overall.
But the Thunder never went away. That is not who they are, they fight. A few turnovers and fast breaks off misses — flashes of the transition game they thrive on — and Lakers leads would disappear in an instant.
The difference was the Lakers big names know how to step it up in the clutch. Kobe in 16 in the third when the Lakers looked like they might pull away, hitting some just pull up threes that were the kind he missed in game three.
Late in the game the Lakers got good shots from Artest (and up and under move on the perimeter and it works?), but their offense became a lot of isolation. So did the Thunder, as has been their pattern. And it worked for a while, they went a 10-0 run late to take the lead.
However, the Kobe Bryant underbite came out – so did a stupid running shot over two defenders that barely moved the net going through with less than a minute left. Sick. Kobe was making plays all night.
The Thunder were up one with 15 seconds when Westbrook had a clean look at the jumper from 10 feet baseline. Oh, the midrange game continues to be his challenge. On the season from the right side baseline there Westbrook was shooting just 25.7% (thank you NBA Hot Spots). He missed.
On the final play I loved the Thunder choosing not to double Kobe, showing confidence in Thabo Sefolosha to shut him down. The rest of his team got caught ball watching. When Kobe made his move and started to go up Nenade Kristic and Durant were under the basket wrestling with Artest, while Serge Ibaka was watching the ball, not bodying his man. Gasol stepped inside Ibaka, got the tip in and that was that.
Thunder fans get it – they stayed late to applaud their young team. They know to savor it in a way that jaded Lakers fans often cannot. Fans from both teams should soak up this series, it was a fun one and about as good as one could ever hope for in the first round.