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Lakers-Thunder Western Conference Semifinals Preview: No longer a feel good story

May 14, 2012, 4:42 PM EDT

Russell Westbrook, Matt Barnes AP

Two years ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the first-round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs. It was supposed to be a nice learning experience for a team on the rise, a quick lesson from the reigning champs as to how the playoffs work. Instead, the world was introduced to the intensity of the Oklahoma City crowd, and the Lakers generally looked inept in their efforts to dominate the less experienced team. The Lakers went on to win the title, because that’s kind of their thing. Struggle when they don’t have to actually try, then kill everything in front of them once they get going. The league took notice, though, and it was the big step forward for the Thunder into the spotlight.

My, how things have changed.

Now the Thunder enter Monday night as the prohibitive favorite, having handled the Lakers in all but their last meeting, an overtime home win for the Lakers that featured Metta World Peace taking out the Thunder’s third best player. The student has become the master, so to speak. But can they win out over the more experienced team, with Kobe Bryant and a huge size advantage?

Five things to note as the series kick off.

1. If You Want Blood,  You Got It: This thing is no longer a friendly little-brother thing. It’s a full-blown rivalry. The Thunder have taken it to the Lakers, and James Harden was actually talking trash to Kobe Bryant in a Thunder win earlier this season. You know, the one before Metta World Peace “accidentally” elbowed him in the side of the head giving him a concussion. Kendrick Perkins has had an issue with Andrew Bynum for years dating back to his Boston days. Serge Ibaka goes at Pau Gasol, and Kevin Durant hates being guarded by MWP. The Lakers will always think they rule the roost and the Thunder just knocked off the Mavericks who tossed them last year. They have something to prove. This is going to be a rough series with emotions running high in the madhouse that is Chesapeake Energy Arena

2. On Guard: Anyone else notice that Ty Lawson destroyed the Lakers? Because Ty Lawson destroyed the Lakers. The Lakers have lacked a good perimeter defender for point guards for years. Ramon Sessions has not helped the situation. Russell Westbrook is the same model as Lawson, fast and explosive, only maybe faster, definitely more explosive, and a better overall scorer. In the 2010 series, Kobe Bryant switched onto Westbrook and did the lion’s share on him. The problem with that is that James Harden has stepped up and become the playmaker that OKC needs as a third option. If Bryant handles Westbrook, they’re just letting Harden loose. Switch MWP onto Harden to defend him without elbowing him, and there’s that problem of Kevin Durant. Someone’s going to get loose for OKC. It’s just a matter of the Lakers picking their poison.

3. Big And Bad And Lazy All Over: Kendrick Perkins does really well against huge athletic centers. But Andrew Bynum’s size is still going to win out most times… if he exerts himself. Bynum could have ended the Nuggets series in five games had he tried. He chose not to, and the series went to seven. How much effort will he give in this series? Likewise, Serge Ibaka is going to have a hard time with Pau Gasol who can shoot over him from mid-range which is where Ibaka struggles. If Gasol is engaged, which again, flip a coin, the Lakers have so much length they can punish the Thunder inside. If not, the game becomes about transition and perimeter and that’s where the Thunder live.

4. Unlikely Heroes: The playoffs have been rife with unlikely heroes. Among these was Steve Blake, hitting five threes in Game 7 vs. Denver. Can the Lakers get great shooting from Blake and MWP over the course of a series despite all evidence to the contrary outside of Game 7? Can Daequan Cook or Thabo Sefolosha makes plays? What about Jordan Hill? No, seriously, what about Jordan Hill? This series is likely to be close and whoever gets a step up from the unlikely guys may come out on top.

5. The Finest Hour: Kobe Bryant was magnificent in Game 6 in a lost cause. In Game 7, he played in the flow of the offense and encouraged his teammates to do their job. Kevin Durant struggled early on vs. the Mavericks before breaking loose. This series is about two evenly matched teams with history and talented rosters. But it’s about Kobe vs. Durant. The Thunder don’t have a defender like MWP to stick on Bryant, but Durant is the best scorer in the series. Either Bryant is going to add to his already insane legend, or Durant’s going to make the biggest statement of his.

  1. slumdog66 - May 14, 2012 at 4:57 PM

    OKC for the sweep

  2. lakerluver - May 14, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    Not only did Kobe play in the flow of the offense; setting up his teammates in the process, he also shut down Lawson in the 4th. This after shutting down Westbrook the last time the LAKERS played OKC. But the haters will ignore all that. There might be other veteran players willing to take on the other teams hot player but there aren’t many who can shut them down.

    • yarjator - May 14, 2012 at 5:15 PM

      Let Kobe shut down Westbrook. Let Artest shut down Durant. The Lakers still have no answer for Harden short of thugging him.

  3. lakerluver - May 14, 2012 at 5:21 PM

    @slumdog66, if you really think OKC will sweep the LAKERS you need to put down the meth pipe, my friend. OKC might win, I think they’re the best team in the league, but there will be no sweep!!

    • passerby23 - May 14, 2012 at 6:47 PM

      A sweep isn’t that far off. Where are the Lakers advantages in this series? Their big frontline? Sure, but they are going up against arguably the best defensive frontline. They are also hot and cold and have to be tired after last series. Kobe? He can’t do it all himself.

      The Thunder are deeper, rested, with more scoring options, and home court advantage. The Lakers were manhandled in two of the three meetings during the regular season and the game they won was a Herculean effort to overcome a 15-point 4th quarter deficit. The only way the Lakers win a game or two is if the Thunder carelessly turn the ball over and beat themselves. Thunder in 4 or 5.

  4. blacc24 - May 14, 2012 at 5:28 PM

    History my friends Spurs will win again in a lockout season (99). Best bench, defense , and backcourt. Timmy get his 5th

  5. blacc24 - May 14, 2012 at 5:33 PM

    And if he does in my book makes him better than Shaq and Kobe.

    • Foul Dwimmerlaik - May 15, 2012 at 7:15 PM

      There’s a difference between getting multiple rings that are at least 2 years apart and multiple rings bunched together (ergo, defending their crowns at least once).

  6. moseskkim - May 14, 2012 at 5:44 PM

    Horrible analyst Jon Barry said okc in 5. I hope lakers prove him wrong

  7. rick1v - May 14, 2012 at 5:45 PM

    Thunder are definitely the favorite, but they could be vulnerable in game 1, not having played in 9 days. Will they be ready to jump back into playoff intensity basketball immediately after a long layoff? Lakers are already there after playing a game 7.

    • rick1v - May 15, 2012 at 12:23 AM

      lol. ya, i guess the 9 days off…. not such a big deal.

  8. phx1311 - May 14, 2012 at 5:53 PM

    As a suns fan I hate the lakers but they def wont be swept and might even win this series because westbrook likes to play hero ball at times and forgets he is a point gaurd and not drose of the west

  9. 20dollardinners - May 14, 2012 at 6:00 PM

    I want the Lakers to win, but it just seems like OKC’s series to lose.

    1. They are way more rested and younger
    2. They seem like a more cohesive unit
    3. They can run like Denver did but also play defense.
    4. Mike Brown is a terrible coach
    5. Where are the Lakers going to get 100-120 points a night from?

    Oh yeah and Durant should have been the NBA and is going to play like it… angry!

  10. oarangecrush - May 14, 2012 at 6:06 PM

    This will hands down be the best basketball game I ever attend!

  11. bimbomoose - May 14, 2012 at 6:11 PM

    Water conducts electricity. Therefore, Thunder goin’ down in 6.
    Two Dominant Big Men plus one of the greatest players to ever play the game = Showtime retuning to SoCal.

  12. wmack1914 - May 14, 2012 at 6:15 PM

    Speaking of unlikely heroes, I’d be willing to bet good money that in at least one of these games, Derek Fisher asserts the dagger to LA

  13. liljere24 - May 14, 2012 at 7:16 PM

    Skip Bayless hates Russell Westbrick

  14. slumdog66 - May 14, 2012 at 7:28 PM

    You must be smoking meth if you think Westbrook is the same player from 3 years ago

    • liljere24 - May 14, 2012 at 7:45 PM

      Must be getting the meth from Jesse Pinkman, Mike Brown eats to much Los Pollos Hermanos

  15. mungman69 - May 14, 2012 at 8:27 PM

    Look, I’m a lifelong laker fan BUT…they might be swept. I just think this is OKC’s year. OKC in five.

  16. bmkmd - May 14, 2012 at 8:40 PM

    You forgot about World “Peace”. He actually is a very good defensive player. He shuts down offensive players routinely when he gets serious, and he will be serious this night in Oklahoma City.

    The Nuggets would be playing tonight but for World “Peace” shutting down Danilo Gallinaro and Andre Miller who together went 2 for 19.

    He wont’ be popular in OKC but he will be a force to contend with.

  17. isujames - May 14, 2012 at 8:49 PM

    OKC in a cakewalk, either 4-0 or 4-1 quote me.

  18. slumdog66 - May 14, 2012 at 10:22 PM

    Would quote you…. If you stuck with one

  19. jerdogthompson - May 14, 2012 at 11:10 PM

    I’ms a gonna half to agree. OKC in 5 max. Bring on the Kobe lovers who will tell me how he blah, de , blah, de , blah and further Blahed the Fakers to a win. Best of luck Faker lovers.

  20. jerdogthompson - May 14, 2012 at 11:10 PM

    I’ms a gonna half to agree. OKC in 5 max. Bring on the Kobe lovers who will tell me how he blah, de , blah, de , blah and further Blahed the Fakers to a win. Best of luck Faker lovers.

  21. jerdogthompson - May 14, 2012 at 11:26 PM

    And further more… for Blake & sessions. Mark my effing words, neither of those Fakers will be above 30% beyond the arc or better than 40% from the field in the entire series. MARK my words.

  22. slumdog66 - May 14, 2012 at 11:39 PM

    @fakerlover- does it still look like I’m smoking meth? Ya didn’t think so. It’s even worse than I though

  23. girouxhasladyballs - May 15, 2012 at 12:17 AM

    they can’t keep up. back to backs coming up at the weekend too.

  24. brianbosworthisstonecold - May 15, 2012 at 12:18 AM

    Visualize whirled peas….

  25. davincizsp - May 15, 2012 at 1:20 AM

    I guess LA will be swept after a 29 points lose… Damn I just bet 20 bucks on LA to win the title..:(

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