Commentary

Lakers helped launch Thunder

Oklahoma City never forgot its early exit from the 2010 playoffs via L.A.

Updated: May 16, 2012, 8:02 AM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Los Angeles Lakers were outplayed, outhustled and outclassed by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, and the funny thing about it is, the Thunder would never be this good if it wasn't for the Lakers pushing them to this point.

Just like Dr. Frankenstein paid his price for tinkering in the lab, the Lakers are partly responsible for creating this monster Thunder team by ousting them from the playoffs in 2010 after a hard-fought six-game series in the first round.

[+] EnlargeRussell Westbrook
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesThe first time Russell Westbrook faced the Lakers in the playoffs, he wasn't much of a factor. This time around, the Lakers didn't have an answer for him.

Sure, the Lakers got their ring that year, but Oklahoma City has been waiting for payback ever since, and got its first taste of revenge with a 119-90 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Two years ago might seem like a lifetime ago in Laker Land, considering that back then Derek Fisher was a teammate instead of an opponent, Phil Jackson sat on the bench instead of Mike Brown roaming the sidelines and Metta World Peace was still Ron Artest, but two years was enough time for the Thunder toddlers to grow into a team to be feared.

"We were young back then," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said before the game. "Kevin [Durant] was never a soft player, but physically he was 210 pounds and 19-20 years old. Now he's 200 and a lot more [pounds]."

He's also more of a leader. More of a player. More of a threat.

World Peace was able to hold Durant to just 35 percent shooting in 2010. That's not happening any more. Durant had 25 points in Game 1, along with 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 blocked shot while shooting 8-for-16 from the field.

"It was a great learning experience for us," Durant said.

He isn't the only Thunder player who has grown up.

Russell Westbrook, who was in just his second year in the league the last time these teams played in the playoffs, had 27 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds and 2 steals in Game 1. His 10-for-15 shooting, mostly on pull-up jumpers out of the pick-and-roll, was the No. 1 problem area the Lakers identified after the loss.

"I just feel a little more experienced," Westbrook said. "I feel a lot more comfortable."

Don't forget James Harden. He's more comfortable out there too. He was a rookie in 2010, scoring two points or less in three out of the six games in the series. Like World Peace's defense was rendered less effective against Durant, World Peace's bully tactics were irrelevant against Harden. If he was at all hesitant playing the Lakers after World Peace's vicious elbow caused him a concussion the last time they played, he didn't show it. Harden scored 17 points off the bench and had two of the Thunder's 13 steals. When he and World Peace got tangled up in the second half, causing him to tumble to the floor with the Lakers' burly forward on top of him, all he did was shake his head and roll his eyes, undeterred.

"This is their crack at it and I'm sure they're ready to go," Kobe Bryant said at Monday's shootaround, about 10 hours before his defense on Westbrook would be torn to shreds by midrange jumper after midrange jumper. "They're a much better team now than they were when we played them a few years ago in the playoffs."

There's a maturation process an NBA team goes through before it can become a champion. You saw it in the late 1980s and early '90s with the Chicago Bulls when they had to get by the old-guard Detroit Pistons in April and May before they could dream of lifting the Larry O'Brien trophy in June.

While Brooks wouldn't cop to seeking out the Lakers specifically, there has to be some satisfaction in dispatching the Dallas Mavericks in the first round this season after Dallas beat his team in the conference finals a year ago, and now having the chance to get the Lakers back too.

"Everybody grows up wanting to beat one of the best teams in basketball," Brooks said before the game. "You don't grow up looking to beat a bad team."

Said Brown: "They feel like they have arrived, which they should, because they've played very good basketball. Especially as of late. The Lakers have knocked them out in the past. The Lakers have multiple championships, which is what they want."

The tables have turned. Back in 2010, the Lakers were the No. 1 seed that picked up seven more wins in the regular season than the No. 8-seeded Thunder. This year, Oklahoma City had six more wins than L.A. during the regular season and is the higher seed with the home-court advantage.

The Lakers were the underdogs coming into the series, but are even more so now, trailing 1-0 and with home court in Games 3 and 4 not even providing the solace it used to because of the back-to-back that's scheduled.

Still, the young Thunder are making sure they are not overlooking L.A. As Omar from "The Wire" once said, "You come at the king, you best not miss," and Oklahoma City has the Lakers square in their aim.

"We respect them a lot, and I think that series made them respect us too," Durant said.

Oh, but did it?

Back in February when the Lakers lost in Oklahoma City by 15, Bryant and Harden exchanged heated trash talk late in the blowout. After the game Bryant was asked about it and was completely dismissive of the young, brash Thunder bunch. "Maybe one day they'll be able to sit at my lunch table," Bryant said. "Right now, we're at two different lunch tables, man."

To go with one more TV reference, it reminded me of a scene from the most recent episode of "Mad Men" when Don Draper, the established creative director of the advertising agency, is talking to Michael Ginsberg, the young, brash junior ad man who thinks he has a "million" ideas better than Draper. "I feel bad for you," Ginsberg says. "I don't think about you at all," Draper replies.

The had Lakers better start thinking about what they can do to stop this Thunder team from rolling, and quickly, before they are run right over.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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