Friday, March 30, 2012

Youth Will Be Buttressed, And Served

Tonight in Los Angeles, in front of a national audience, the Lakers looked good early. They led at the half against the best in the West Thunder, scored 30 points in the first quarter despite not really getting too far away from their usual slow pace, and had the Staples crowd rocking. Kevin Durant was off his game, Russell Westbrook wasn't lighting them up the way he usually does, and it was looking for all the world like the drama graybeards where going to keep their home roll going and keep moving towards that ritualistic Pacific Division title and decent seed in the West. (A small note: the Pacific isn't exactly a murderer's row this year. Still, a division crown helps.)

And then Derek Fisher came in, wearing his jarringly inappropriate Thunder gear, and gave the road team a little spark, just enough to get to the half without feeling too badly about themselves. And then the second half started, and the Thunder brushed the old frauds aside like dirt off their shoulders.

How total was it? OKC shot 45% from the floor and won easily, on the road. The Lakers needed two three-pointers from The Artist Currently Known As Metta to just get in hailing distance late. Westbrook scored 17 in the third to take control of the game, Durant threw down one of his bolts from heaven dunks on the befuddled Pau Gasol, and the LA crowd got to see what a real contender looks like -- young, athletic, long, complete. The only way to beat this team is to force turnovers, and that's just not what a team with all of its major components on the wrong side of 30 is going to do... even when the playoffs start.

There really is nothing not to like about this Thunder club. They block shots like mad, with Serge Ibaka doing the off the ball thing, and Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed taking care of internal work. They make their free throws, with Durant and Westbrook icing games late. Nick Collison gives them smart bench minutes and all kinds of useful energy; tonight's 8 boards in 19 minutes is kind of par for the course. James Harden has been unstoppable this year, and Thabo Sefolosha might be the best defensive 2 guard that no one talks about; he utterly destroyed Kobe Bryant (7 for 25, yeesh) tonight, and that's generally hard to do in LA.

As for the Lakers, man alive, do they look bad when they lose. Andrew Bynum had 25 and 13 tonight with 4 blocks, and yet his game is just profoundly unsatisfying. He's just a black hole on offense, with the ball always going up when he gets it (0 assists and 4 turns in his 41 minutes), and the 1 to 2 assist to turnover ratio isn't getting it done, even for a big. He still hasn't really meshed with Gasol the way that Lamar Odom did, and when the game gets down to grind it out, he's just ungainly. And this, of course, is Bynum at his best, when he's hale and healthy and not even causing distractions or pouting. Laker Fan does not love him the way you think that they might, and they've seen an awful lot of winning basketball out there. They might be right.

Having said all that, the trade deadline is passed and Dwight Howard isn't walking through that door, so they are going to play the hand they've got. But you get the sense that they *know* they are frauds, and that every time the Thunder show up and demonstrate the talent gap, the sense of unease grows.

Because, well, the Thunder are still getting better. The Lakers aren't. And the Thunder are a lot better than the Lakers right now...

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