Why OKC Thunder vs. L.A. Lakers Will Go Down as One of NBA's Best Rivalries

Moke Hamilton@@MokeHamiltonCorrespondent IIOctober 31, 2012

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 21:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers walks past Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder after a 106-90 loss during Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 21, 2012 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The Oklahoma City Thunder win the series 4-1, and advance to the Western Conference Finals.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Back in 2008, Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers lost the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics and responded by winning back-to-back NBA championships the following two years.

After losing to LeBron James’ Miami Heat this past June, Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder will attempt to have similar success.

Big city vs. small town.

The NBA’s old vs. the NBA’s new.

An epic rivalry is born.

In just four years, we have witnessed the Thunder grow from a team that couldn’t win as many as 25 games in the 2008-2009 NBA season to one that had home-court advantage in the 2012 NBA Finals.

Their meteoric ascent has been led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and masterful front-office management. And because the Thunder grew up so quickly, they’re the team of the future while simultaneously being the team of today.

And because the aging Lakers have been reinvented with the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, a team whose window seemed to have closed has new life. Both in the immediate and distant future.

Over the span in which we witnessed the Thunder grow, Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to two NBA championships and has proven that he is capable of winning without Shaquille O’Neal.

He’s shown himself to be one the most durable shooting guards in NBA history—still performing at a relatively high level after playing more than 1,100 career regular season games.

Now, today, as the consensus top teams in the NBA’s Western Conference, the two teams are seemingly on a collision course. They’ve met in the NBA playoffs twice before, splitting the matchups.

The Lakers beat the Thunder in the first round of the 2010 playoffs and eventually went on to best the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals that year.

Two years later, the Thunder would return the favor, beating the Lakers in five games in the second round of the 2012 playoffs. Unlike the Lakers, though, the Thunder failed to win the whole thing. They lost to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in just five games.

Even still, the whimper with which the Lakers exited the NBA’s past two postseason parties was supposed to signify the passing of the Western Conference’s torch. Kobe Bryant—who has amazingly played in seven NBA Finals—has been the conference’s greatest winner since the turn of the century.

And after eliminating the Lakers from the playoffs in just five games last season, the Thunder was supposed to have taken the mantle.

But after a magnificent offseason in which the Lakers added Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to their starting five and Antawn Jamison to their bench, the Lakers have retooled.

And now, even after trading James Harden—the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year—the Thunder are expected to rise to the top of the conference.

The Lakers lost the 2008 NBA Finals but made it back and won in the following year.

Now, four years later, the Thunder will attempt to do the same.

And in order to, they’ll have to go through the Lakers.

Whether Kevin Durant can outplay and outscore Kobe Bryant will go a long way toward determining how these two teams will fare against one another in the immediate future.

When they met in the 2012 playoffs, the Lakers had no answer for Durant on the defensive end.

Clearly, he learned from his first playoff battle against the Lakers.

In 2010, when they met for the first time, Durant shot just 38 percent from the field over the course of the series, converting just 43 of his 123 field-goal attempts. It’s no wonder his team lost the series in six games.

In 2012, however, Durant made more shots with fewer attempts. He hit 53 percent of his attempts, converting on 48 of his 93 shots. More importantly, the Thunder was able to beat the Lakers in just five games.

Over the past two years, Durant has become more adept at creating off the dribble and is bigger and stronger. When he entered the league as a rookie in 2007, he weighed just 215 pounds.

Coming into this season, his listed weight is 235.

Now a stronger and more versatile scorer, Durant has probably become the most complete scorer in the NBA’s Western Conference, taking the title from the aging Bryant.

Bryant, though, has just less than 30,000 career points and has his sights set on ring No. 6. The road there, though, goes through Oklahoma City.

Fortunately for Bryant, he now has the NBA’s best center, Dwight Howard, to tread that road with him.

But the Thunder have Kendrick Perkins, one of the few guys in the league who can effectively defend Howard in one-on-one situations.

Thus far, including the regular season and playoffs, Dwight Howard and Kendrick Perkins have faced off against one another 37 times. Howard’s team is leading the head-to-head battle, 19-18.

Of those 37 matches, 13 of them were playoff battles. But here, it is Perkins’ team that holds the narrow edge, having gone 7-6.

Perkins—then a member of the Boston Celtics—met Howard two consecutive years in the Eastern Conference playoffs. In 2009, Howard’s Orlando Magic eliminated Perkins and the Celtics in the second round after a hard-fought seven-game series. The following year, in 2010, the Celtics ousted the Magic in six.

Since February 2011, Perkins and Howard were separated. But now, after Howard was traded to the Lakers, the two once again find themselves on two of the top teams in the same conference.

Odds are, they’ll meet in the playoffs at least 13 more times over the next few years. And it’s probably safe to say that they won’t be too happy to see one another.

Another guy Perkins probably won't be too happy to see is Steve Nash. His forays into the paint and pick-and-roll mastery will give Perkins fits.

So yes, Nash’s addition to the Lakers adds something to this budding rivalry, as well.

With every passing game, Bryant’s odometer racks up mileage, but Nash's presence will alleviate the pressure on Bryant to create for the Lakers and perhaps help to prolong his career.

By the time the Lakers squared off against the Thunder in the 2012 playoffs, Bryant was already showing signs of aging and he was no longer the most athletic player on the wing.

The Lakers depended on him too much to create opportunities for himself and his teammates. And with Perkins patrolling the paint, Thabo Sefolosha on the perimeter and Serge Ibaka on the weak side, that was obviously a losing proposition.

Nash’s addition hasn’t made the Lakers any younger, but it gives them a reliable ball handler who can help create easier looks for his teammates and help the them get out in transition.

More importantly, Nash is a career 43 percent shooter from three-point range—an area in which the Lakers were extremely poor last season.

In 2011-12, the Lakers converted just 32.6 percent of their three-point attempts—fifth worst in the league.

In last year’s playoffs, they were even worse, converting just 30.6 percent.

Nash will help them in two very important areas. And although the Lakers still don’t have a reliable defensive response to Russell Westbrook, there’s no doubt that they have substantially upgraded their talent at that position and, at the very least, are less handicapped at the 1-guard spot than they were last season.

The Thunder was supposed to be the new powerhouse in the conference. But the additions of Howard and Nash and the subtraction of Harden has pushed the reset button on what was already a budding rivalry.

Now, despite the fact that the Lakers are aging, we can reasonably expect Howard to re-sign with the Lakers and lead them over the course of the foreseeable future—even after Bryant retires.

As of right now, the Lakers have only about $10 million in salaries committed for the 2014-15 season, meaning that—if they effectively manage their cap situation—they can be major players in free agency in the summer of 2014.

That’s a while from now, but that’s a part of what makes this rivalry one of first impression. We’ve watched the Thunder grow before our very eyes and we’ve watched the Lakers grow old before our very eyes.

When it seemed that the Lakers time had come and gone, they reloaded.

This rivalry has been reinvented on the fly and in the immediate future, these two teams are on an inevitable collision course.

And with Dwight Howard leading the way for the Lakers and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook doing so for the Thunder, that will probably be the case in the distant future, as well.

We’re all in for quite a treat.  


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