Did you see that New York Times story about how the exorbitant cost of higher education is burdening a generation of college graduates with a collective $1 trillion of debt? That’s what the Los Angeles Lakers reminded me of late in Game 7 Saturday night. They finally figured out what they had to do put away the upstart Denver Nuggets, but the price could be seen in the faces and body language of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol as they made one of their final trips downcourt.
They were weary. Gasol opened his mouth wide to gasp air. Bynum tilted his head back. Bryant leaned over and grabbed the bottom of his shorts. Through strategy and effort, Denver had nullified the Lakers’ two 7-footers during the middle part of the series. Finally, Gasol and Bynum responded with a higher energy level themselves in Game 7, relentlessly going after offensive rebounds and hustling back on defense.
Had they played that way in Game 5 they could have bought themselves three days off instead of playing two extra games and expending additional energy. Now, with only one day to recover, the Lakers have to travel across two time zones to face the Oklahoma City Thunder, a better team with an even faster point guard than the Nuggets, in addition to the noisiest environment in the NBA. That’s their initial challenge. The schedule gets no more lenient from there, with the first four games of the series held in a six-day span, including back-to-back games in Los Angeles Friday and Saturday.
The Lakers have three starters who are over 30. The Thunder have three starters who are under 24. Also, while the extra games allowed Metta World Peace to fulfill his seven-game suspension, it also provided more time to recuperate for Kendrick Perkins. He has a right hip muscle strain that forced him out of the final game of Oklahoma City’s first-round sweep of the Dallas Mavericks and is being called a game-time decision. World Peace can be as effective a deterrent to Kevin Durant as can be found, but Perkins always gives Pau Gasol problems.
The Thunder won the first two games against the Lakers this season and were leading in the second quarter of the third game before James Harden was concussed by World Peace’s elbow. It still took double-overtime for the Lakers to beat the Thunder at home.
There was a noticeable difference between the Thunder’s performance at home and on the road in the 2010 playoff series with the Lakers. The Lakers’ only victory in three tries came on a Gasol putback at the buzzer. Since then the Thunder have the experience of advancing to the Western Conference finals themselves, plus importing the championship rings of Perkins and Derek Fisher while the Lakers have exported championship core members Fisher and Lamar Odom.
The Lakers have had more turnover than the Thunder since they last met, including the coach. They still had adjustments to make, Mike Brown still needed to show something to players who were used to the winningest coach in playoff history.
Brown said the lesson his Laker team learned from the Denver series was “How good we can be if we decide to play every possession.”
That takes energy, though. And the Lakers used a lot of it to get out of the first round. If that’s the currency, the Thunder are richer.