Lakers vs. Thunder: A Microcosm of the NBA Playoffs
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Throughout the first and second rounds of the NBA Playoffs one major storyline has emerged: the old guard isn't going down without a fight.
Illustrated by the current runs of the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, there is no doubt that the veteran teams of the NBA are not yet ready to secede to the era of young guns like Oklahoma City and Miami. The theme has been developing over the past few weeks with these three teams in particular. There is no better exemplification of this theme than the current Lakers-Thunder series.
After getting spanked in Game 1 by their younger opponents, the Lakers again faltered in the closing minutes of Game 2. That second loss pushed their backs against the wall, similar to an aging dad playing his high school son in a game of one-on-one to 11, losing 9-3. The Lakers, like the father, still had a few tricks up their sleeve. An old-time post move perhaps, lost on the youths who never saw Kevin McHale play.
With that move, the Lakers won Game 3 on the shoulders of a classic Kobe Bryant fourth-quarter performance. Kobe was able to stare down an opposing star that is 10 years his junior and get the better of him for one night. The burning question of the next 24 hours: Can he do it again?
Bryant is exiting the overwhelming athlete portion of his career and is now entering the crafty veteran stage. He is a pitcher who has lost 5 mph on his fastball and must paint the corners. That showed in his 18-18 performance from the charity stripe in Game 3. He shot only one three in the game, instead choosing to draw contact by taking the ball to the hoop. That is why he made just eight free throws fewer than the Thunder did as a team.
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With the exception of San Antonio, the regular season was all about Oklahoma City, Miami and Chicago. Three younger teams poised to take over the NBA. That parallels the first two games of this series. The Thunder took care of business in front of their crowd at home, a young crowd at that.
Oklahoma City has only had a permanent basketball team for four seasons. The Lakers fanbase, like their current team is much older. There wasn't as much sound pumped into the stadium. There was no confetti fluttering down onto the heads of Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace after the win. That is left for the younger crowds like Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and the Clippers.
The Laker fanbase knows what to expect from its team, and it has come to expect Kobe Bryant pouring in 13 points in the fourth quarter to propel its team to victory.
The Thunder will keep coming, though, with youthful legs and the naivete of a group of talented youngsters. Tonight's game will dictate the length of this series and the longevity of this current form of the Lakers. A Laker win tonight evens the series at two games apiece and that means a Game 7 is in view. A Thunder win will be devastating to the Lakers, and this series could end in five games.
This will also be the rare instance of a back-to-back game in the playoffs. Yet another thing that could help the Thunder against a tiring Lakers team. Bryant and Gasol logged 39 and 37 minutes last night, respectively. Can these guys bring it with the same intensity after just 21 hours off? That question will be answered early on tonight. If Bryant's jumpers are hitting the front rim and Gasol is shying away from the painted area, then the Lakers are cooked.
In some ways this could be the most difficult task of the Kobe-Pau era in Los Angeles. They are fighting to stay relevant and fighting to win the next championship.
The Lakers are not just battling the Thunder in this series. They are battling age and time. They are also in a way battling the Celtics and Spurs. They don't want to be the first of the group to fall victim to the next wave of basketball talent. I refuse to believe that this series is over. It is far from over because there is no team more dangerous than one facing extinction.
Tonight is Game 4, and if you think last night's victory gave the Lakers breathing room, you are wrong. The Thunder still have Los Angeles on the ropes and a 3-1 hole will be a death sentence. The old guard hasn't gone down without a fight throughout these playoffs, the Lakers don't want to start now.
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