- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- It was like old times at Staples Center on Saturday night. The Lakers won a Game 7 at home for the first time since the 2010 NBA Finals, purple and gold streamers rained from the ceiling, Randy Newman's "I love L.A." blasted from the speakers and Kobe Bryant walked off the court with his hands raised in the air.
In Los Angeles' knee-jerk sports culture, it's entirely possible a Lakers playoff win like this might once again spark widespread optimism that this postseason could be something more than the short trip the team took last year.
The Lakers did what they were supposed to do against the Denver Nuggets. If anything, the difficultly they had in finally eliminating Denver after two straight dreadful performances in closeout games may have finally put to bed the notion that the Lakers' size combined with Bryant's will to win in the postseason would be enough to somehow propel them back to the NBA Finals.
There's no doubt the Lakers can be competitive with any team in the league, but there's also little doubt a second-round exit is in this team's future when they face the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Before the Lakers finally pulled away from the Nuggets in the final minutes of Saturday's game, the only thing most fans could think of were Andrew Bynum's infamous comments before Game 5, when he said, "Closeout games are actually kind of easy. Teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning."
Why Bynum would think anything would come easy to the Lakers this season is as mysterious as his mood swings. Nothing has come easy for the Lakers since they were swept out of the second round of the playoffs last year by the Dallas Mavericks. They lost Phil Jackson, Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown and Derek Fisher and replaced them with Mike Brown, Troy Murphy, Jordan Hill and Ramon Sessions. That's not exactly the kind of trade-off that should make anyone think this team is any better than the team that was dismantled by Dallas last year.
Brown remembers watching the Lakers-Mavericks series last year and has spent a good amount of his time in Los Angeles trying to shore up the team's defense but admits it has been a work in progress because the Lakers' success on defense largely depends on their success on offense.
"If they feel good about their flow offensively, to a certain degree, it seems they defend better," Brown said. "So I have spent just as much time with this team on offense as I have on defense. This has been an unusual season from that standpoint."
Against the Thunder, however, the Lakers cannot wait to get comfortable on offense before they get comfortable on defense. With a three-time scoring champion in Kevin Durant, two-time All-Star in Russell Westbrook and Sixth Man of the Year in James Harden, the Thunder have the kind of weapons the Nuggets simply didn't have.
"We can't get beat in transition," Brown said. "We can't give up second shots. We have to make sure we're playing the pick-and-roll the right way and we have to have ball reverses. We have to get the ball from one side of the floor to the other and we have to play big because that's who we are, but we have to be better than we were in this series."
Even when the Lakers held a 3-1 series lead against Denver, Dallas Mavericks center Brendan Haywood said the Lakers would be easily beaten by the Thunder in the second round because as much as the players and coaches on the Lakers have changed from last year, defensively they have yet to close the holes that killed them last postseason.
"I like the Lakers, but they haven't solved the mid screen-and-roll problem that we gave them problems with last year with J.J. Barea and Jason Terry and all those guys," Haywood told ESPN Dallas. "They switched a lot and I'm here to tell you they're switching it with Harden and Westbrook and Durant in the middle of the court and it's going to be a problem. I don't think the Lakers have solved the mid screen-and-roll problem."
The mid screen-and-roll is just one of the many problems the Thunder present for the Lakers. If the Lakers looked gassed trying to keep up with the Nuggets at times, they will have to find another gear in order to keep up with Oklahoma City.
"It doesn't matter. I don't care if you give us a year to rest, that year's rest isn't going to make us any faster," Bryant said when asked about the short turnaround time before playing the Thunder.
When Bryant was asked if the Lakers would have to play better to beat the Thunder than they were in beating the Nuggets, he laughed before deadpanning, "Yeah, just a little."
If it was as simple as speed over size or pace over strength, maybe the Lakers would have a chance. After all, the Lakers overcame both against the Nuggets, but the Nuggets aren't the Thunder. The Nuggets were simply happy to take the Lakers the distance, while the Lakers represent a stepping-stone for the Thunder, which began the season with championship expectations.
The Thunder have been building up to this point for the past couple of seasons since the Lakers eliminated them in the first round of the playoffs in 2010 on their way to a title. Two years later, a more mature, talented and experienced Thunder team wants to return the favor to the Lakers. Oklahoma City will also have a not-so-secret weapon in Fisher, who will not only provide Westbrook with some much-needed relief and guidance but will provide his teammates with the best scouting report in the league on beating the Lakers.
It will be the first playoff matchup between Fisher and Bryant after the backcourt tandem teamed up to win five championships in Los Angeles.
"It's like brothers," Bryant said of Fisher. "When you compete with your brother, somebody's got to win and you'd rather it be you. Somebody's going to have bragging rights in the summer time. He brings leadership and experience to their team. I don't really know what their locker room dynamics are over there, but with us he was a true inspiration for the entire ballclub."
The final message on the whiteboard in the Lakers' locker room before they flew to Oklahoma City was "12 more." It represented the number of wins the Lakers still need to win a championship this season. If the Lakers don't figure out a way to beat Oklahoma City, however, it'll also represent the number of days left in the Lakers' season.
9hEthan Sherwood Strauss
8hArash Markazi and Ben Alamar
2dAlok Pattani, ESPN Stats & Information
2dDan Le Batard