After blowing a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Lakers prevailed in Game 7 and will advance to the next round to face off with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder, which swept the defending champion Dallas Mavericks over a week ago, will look to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row. Meanwhile the Lakers will be looking to do so for the fourth time in the last five years.
The last time that the Lakers and Thunder met in a postseason series, which was in 2010, the upstart Thunder gave the eventual champion Lakers a run for their money, but Los Angeles came out on top in six games. This time around things will be totally different, as the Thunder are much more experienced and the Lakers are just older.
When these teams met two years ago, Kevin Durant had just claimed his first of three straight NBA scoring titles, so he had already reached the level of superstardom. It is what is around Durant in the Sooner State that has developed in the years since the Thunder's first playoff appearance.
Russell Westbrook has emerged as one of the best point guards in the game today with two consecutive All-Star trips on his belt. Depth has also become plentiful for the Thunder, as the bearded James Harden has developed into the best reserve in the game and the winner of the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Even the Thunder’s bigs have made great improvements, as “Air Congo” Serge Ibaka averaged a league-leading 3.6 blocks per game and finished second in voting for Defensive Player of the Year this season.
On the other side of the court, the Lakers' biggest change is on the coaching staff. Phil Jackson is spending his days in retirement and Mike Brown is manning the sidelines at Staples Center. The triangle offense is no longer in effect, but Kobe Bryant is still Kobe Bryant. Even if he is 33-years-old and pretty banged up, Kobe is still one of the most feared players in the league. The transition to his new coaching staff went smoothly, as he just barely missed out on the scoring title.
Outside of Kobe, Mike Brown’s top player has been center Andrew Bynum. Bynum has had a number of maturity issues throughout his career, but this year he started his first All-Star Game for the West and finished with career highs in points (18.7), rebounds (11.8), and minutes (35.2).
During the regular season, the Thunder beat the Lakers in two of three meetings. The first two competitions were easy wins for Oklahoma City, but the final matchup was one of the most exciting games of the year.
After the Lakers overcame a 16-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter to tie the game at the end of regulation, they took control in the second overtime and came away with a 114-106 victory. The game saw a number of great performances by a handful of players on each team, but is most remembered for a disgusting incident that occurred during the second quarter.
In celebrating his fourth field goal of the competition, Lakers small forward Metta World Peace, one of the most controversial players in NBA history, pounded his chest and appeared to advertently elbow James Harden in the head with his follow-through. Harden was immediately knocked down to the ground with a concussion and World Peace was sent to the locker room for the remainder of the game. Fortunately, Harden quickly recovered from his injury, but World Peace was suspended for the Lakers’ next seven competitions.
That being said, the matchup to look forward to in the Western Conference Semifinals will be between Metta World Peace and whoever the Lakers assign him to defend. World Peace, who won the Defensive Player of Year Award back in 2004 when he was known as Ron Artest, will most likely be given the difficult task of containing Kevin Durant.
If World Peace can keep his head in the game and avoid any of his silly antics between the whistles, Los Angeles might have a chance in this series. This not only means that he must avoid any flagrant fouls, but he also must apologize to James Harden. World Peace has noted that he will not shake Harden’s hand because he is not a starter. Until he acknowledges Harden, the Lakers’ small forward will be the prime target of Oklahoma City’s pecking crew.
I believe that the Thunder will run away with this series. Los Angeles used way too much energy up on the Nuggets in a seven game brawl while Oklahoma City had over a week to rest and plan for its second round matchup. The time off may hurt the Thunder, as they may lose a little bit of momentum, but the Thunder is such a good team that it should not have too much trouble picking up from where it left off against the Mavericks last Saturday.
To conclude, the youth of the Thunder will be too much for the aging Lakers, who have not been fortunate enough to get everyone to play their best at the same time this postseason. If the Lakers are able to find a way to win one of the first two games of the series in Oklahoma City than this matchup could be very interesting. However, Los Angeles has been so mediocre on the road this season that the Thunder should be able to close out the Lakers in five games.