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Monday, May 21, 2012
Rapid Reaction: Thunder 106, Lakers 90

By Andy Kamenetzky

And the dream, she's now officially over. It was tight for a while, but then the fourth quarter floodgates opened early, and the Lakers were washed up in a flurry of OKC scoring. Too much Russell Westbrook. Too much Kevin Durant. Too much James Harden. And not enough contributions beyond those from Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol. (Five bench points? Yeesh.) But at the end of the day, the biggest problem was getting matched up against the Thunder. They're unquestionably the better team, and the Lakers would have needed to play nearly perfect basketball for 48 minutes a night in order to pull an upset. That requirement wasn't close to met, so the superior team advanced.

Here are five takeaways from the Lakers' final game of the 2012 season.

1) Kobe Bryant really wanted to win this game
I mean, really, really, really wanted to win this game. And this desire was made perfectly clear from the outset, as The Mamba was in attack mode with 24 capital "A's." 42 points would be impressive under any circumstances, particularly when you consider the bag of tricks emptied while unleashing Bryant's arsenal. But what really drives home Kobe's relentless pursuit was his five dunks. Let that number sink in for a second.

Five.

I'm guessing most fans would choose as their favorite a spectacular reverse throwdown to cap a baseline drive, but really, whatever selection isn't nearly as significant as there being five to choose from. That's a lot of jumping around for a 33-year old, who admitted after a 2011 postseason posterization of Emeka Okafor he saves these jams for a rainy day. Remember, dude ain't as young as he used to be. A contest to save the season certainly qualifies as the proper time to empty the tank, and Bryant didn't hold back.

He's tough out there," said Durant about Kobe in his postgame interview with TNT's Craig Sager. "He's a warrior."

2) No rebounds, no rings
Or even trips to the Western Conference Finals. A poor tone was set during the first quarter, when OKC doubled the Lakers' 10 rebounds after 12 minutes. In particular, they worked the offensive glass, collecting six before the first timeout. They weren't consistently converted into second chance points, but these boards were indicative of the Thunder's control over this game. In all, OKC grabbed 51 rebounds to the Lakers' 36, and Gasol was the only visitor to hit double digits (16). Heck, he was the only Laker to grab more than five.

For a team this strong on the glass all season, it's an inexcusably poor showing. For a team clawing to extend a postseason, it was also a death toll.

3) Ramon Sessions looked jittery in a pressure cooker setting
During Game 7 against Denver, I found it telling that among the two Lakers receiving notable minutes, the only two players who looked overwhelmed by the circumstances were Sessions and Jordan Hill. Coincidentally, both players were the only ones who'd never experienced the playoffs before, much less a elimination situation. For Sessions, this performance was indicative of a rather underwhelming postseason, where his presence largely shrunk into the background. Tonight, with the Lakers' season again in the balance, the point guard looked to be battling nerves. His first shot was a missed 3-pointer, and when two chances at the line were earned shortly afterward, both were bricked as well. Shots at the rim also refused to fall, and those misses created a few transition scores for OKC. As a play-maker, he made a few nice passes, but his six turnovers included some lulus. Westbrook added insult to injury by snagging one particularly bad pass, then converting a circus layup after Sessions' attempt to wrap him up proved ineffective.

In the meantime, Westbrook as a ball-handler often abused Sessions. If this postseason has taught us anything, it's that Sessions isn't much help on the defensive end. Tonight was no exception.

4) The MWP-Harden backstory affected the way this series has been officiated
Almost without fail, the playoffs are a time when referees allow more physicality, more grabbing and more proverbial "stuff" to go. And that's the way it should be, whether you ask fans or the players themselves. Obviously, some degree of control needs to be exercised, as you don't want the proceedings to devolve into prison ball, but the second season is about letting men be men, so to speak. This was the case during the Lakers' first round series against Denver -- every first round series, really -- and it should have been expected during this Western Conference semi-finals.

However, from Game 1 onward, Lakers-Thunder was officiated exceptionally tight. I'm guessing this is due to concerns about bad blood after MWP's elbow to Harden. And certainly, the refs need to be observant, since postseason series are hotbeds for emotion. But there's cautiousness and there's paranoia, and we've been treated to the latter reaction over five games. Tonight, the refs were particularly overbearing, and it especially hurt the Lakers. Kobe picked up two first half fouls and Bynum three, the third coming on phantom contact while chasing a rebound. Both were forced at times to play tentative defense as a result. With the lockdown compromised, OKC was able to get some easy buckets.

In the meantime, Metta was taged with a horrible flagrant foul while trying to block a layup from Thabo Sefolosha. A legitimate swat was landed without much body contact, but the Swiss swing-man landed awkwardly. The refs punished the result, and by extension, MWP, who loudly responded with a phrase that rhymes with "shull bit." Naturally, a tech was assessed, and then Kobe's (seemingly calm) request for an explanation prompted another.

Yes, these guys have a responsibility to maintain poise, but I don't blame them for getting honked. It's never ideal having to play basketball on eggshells, so to speak.

5) Of course, you still have to play through the adversity...
It's hard to say for certain how much Bynum's defensive activity was truly affected by foul trouble, because he never seemed entirely dialed in to begin with. His reaction times were often quite slow before taking an early seat, and then upon rejoining the action. Plus, his fourth personal, a lazy reach, is theoretically the exact kind of infraction you'd look to avoid while in this situation. Four rebounds and zero blocks feels about right for the defensive presence provided. He certainly wasn't the only Laker guilty of breakdowns or offensive struggles, but he was definitely the only one guilty of perennially bad body language. Any questions about his viability as a franchise player certainly weren't extinguished tonight.

Bold Play of the Game: Mike Brown sitting Kobe at the top of the fourth quarter with the Lakers down six. In less than a minute, the gap grew to 11. A timeout was called, but Kobe remained curiously on the bench. Upon resuming play, Sessions was called for an offensive foul, and Durant quickly drilled a shot from downtown. Sessions coughed up the ball again, and The Mamba finally received his call to duty. By then, however, any chance of a comeback was pretty much dusted.

Personally, I wouldn't have sat Bryant at all, and I'm guessing most fans didn't appreciate the risk taken, either.