The Thunder Are All Grown Up

May 14, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden (13) reacts to a shot against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half in game one of the Western Conference semifinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE

The Thunder sent a message in Game 1 Monday night, and after a 29-point blowout, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers heard it loud and clear. So did the rest of the NBA.

What Metta World Peace did to James Harden three weeks ago, the Thunder did to the Lakers Monday night. It was vicious. It's one thing to win a playoff game, it's a whole other story when you win like THAT.

And it feels weird to say about a 29-point blowout, but it was fun to watch.

Four years of NBA buzz had been building to that display Monday night, where all the pieces finally came together and blew everyone away. Serge Ibaka harassing Pau Gasol on defense, Thabo Sefolosha doing the same to Kobe, Kevin Durant hitting cold-blooded jumpers, Russell Westbrook wreaking havoc on L.A.'s helpless backcourt ... and then James Harden popping off the bench and making it all just a little bit more unstoppable. As a basketball fan, you can't help but smile watching it all come together.

Of course it matters that this all happened against the Lakers, NBA royalty personified, and the same team that bounced the Thunder from the playoffs in 2010. Even if it isn't the same team that won back-to-back titles two years ago, L.A. still has as much talent at the top as anybody in the league. And that's the thing -- the Lakers didn't even play that poorly. Gasol was mostly neutralized, but Andrew Bynum (20 and 14) and Kobe Bryant (20 points in 32 minutes) both looked good. On another night against another team, L.A. would've been a worthy adversary; next to OKC they were hopeless.

Exhibit A: Kobe Bryant began the game guarding Westbrook, just like we expected. But there were two problems. First, he might have been able to shut down Westbrook a few years ago, but Russ has taken his game to another level this year, and Kobe couldn't touch him in the opening minutes.


Thunder 119, Lakers 90 | Full Series Coverage


The other problem? Westbrook's 10 years younger and much faster than Kobe, which means that chasing him all over the court takes away from Kobe's energy for the offensive side of things. So not only was Kobe unable to contain Westbrook, but as OKC built its lead, he had to give up altogether. L.A. switched into a 3-2 zone. Kobe needed his energy on offense just to try and keep pace.

It's not a fun truth for the Lakers to swallow, but Game 1 didn't leave much room for doubt: when Russell Westbrook plays that well, it's a lose-lose proposition. They can try to stop him with Kobe (they'll fail), or they can try to stop him with Steve Blake or Ramon Sessions, and between Westbrook's scoring and the wide-open jumpers his offense creates for Durant, OKC will be pretty much unstoppable. Even Kobe can't keep pace.

For L.A. to have a chance, then, they've gotta hope that the KD's jumpers don't fall, and Westbrook makes bad decisions. In other words, the best way to defend the Thunder is hope.

Of course, there are disclaimers here:

  • The Thunder led the NBA in turnovers this season. They had four Monday night. They won't match that performance for the rest of the playoffs.
  • OKC shot 53 percent for the game. See above.
  • OKC was coming off nine days rest, L.A. had around 45 hours between Game 7 against Denver and Game 1 Monday.
  • Steve Blake and Ramon Sessions can't possibly be that horrible for the entire series, right? And Pau Gasol's not going to be invisible all series, either.
  • 29-point blowout or not, it only counts as one win ...
  • ... and now that everyone's handing the series to OKC, the Lakers have no pressure, and plenty of motivation.

But, yeah: if you're an L.A. fan looking for optimism after Monday, you're mostly grasping at straws. The problem wasn't that Kobe and the Lakers didn't show up, the problem was that they showed up, kept it close for about eight minutes, and then got blown off the court. It was Manny Pacquiao vs. Ricky Hatton, Slim Charles vs. Cheese Wagstaff and every other execution that sorta came out of nowhere, and then left you speechless.

We didn't really know if the Thunder had this in them, at least on this stage. It's why I thought the Lakers could make this a close series, even if L.A. was outgunned on paper. All the OKC talent has never translated to a beatdown, where they just go for the jugular and run teams off the court.

And again, seeing it finally happen, it's hard not to love. Mostly because everyone on the Thunder is so damn lovable. You have the superstars: Westbrook, the ADHD assassin, and Durant, the next-generation Dirk. Then you have grinding, goofy role players like Ibaka, Nick Collison, Thabo and Kendrick Perkins. And then there's Harden, the silky-smooth weirdo who bridges the all the gaps. He's the superstar role player. It's just an awesome team.

Star-divide

We first started taking the Thunder seriously two years ago, when they took the defending champion Lakers to six games in the first round. They hung with the champs for six games, and that was statement enough. Two years later, they just blew that team off the court.

"Okay, it's only one game," everyone will say Tuesday.

But goddamn. What a game.

Maybe it's not a championship team this year, but it's a beautiful, scary thing to watch when it all clicks. They're only getting scarier as the games pass and everyone gets more consistent. And the same way we look back at that L.A. series in 2010 as the first time OKC peeked through as a threat, we way remember this Lakers game as that moment when the threat finally became real.

Star-divide

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