Experience kicks in for the Lakers
Gee, who’d have thunk it?
Showing how things changed in two weeks, the Thunder opened as two-point favorites for Game 6, making the Lakers, until recently the lords of all they surveyed in the West, underdogs for the first time this series and probably the first time in any first-round game this millennium.
And what do you know, the gritty little underdogs won!
The Lakers, I mean.
With Kobe Bryant scoring 32 points, looking closer to being Kobe Bryant than he had in a week, and Pau Gasol tipping in the one he missed at the end, the Lakers edged the Thunder, 95-94.
Limited by a sore knee, Bryant scored a total of 25 points in Games 4 and 5, taking only 19 shots, but stepped up the aggression level Friday.
“Kobe made some Kobe-like shots,” said Thunder Coach Scott Brooks. “Unfortunately, that’s who he is.
“The guy’s an amazing player. He just has a heart like a lion. He really expects and he wills to make those tough shots.”
With six players 23 or younger in its nine-man rotation, and only two of the nine — Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha — who had ever been in an NBA playoff game — the Thunder turned out to be too young after all but not by much.
While learning what the postseason was all about, Oklahoma City turned the first round into a baptism of fire, which was just what the Lakers needed after staggering down the stretch with Bryant and Andrew Bynum coming off injuries.
Well, it was what they needed, assuming they survived it.
Seeing as how the Lakers looked out of it a week ago, coming off their Game 4 wipeout here, the series definitely ended on an uptick for them.
“Every year in the playoffs, you want to get better every series,” said Bryant. “This series forced us to play hard every possession. Oklahoma City demanded that of us. We feel like we’re a better club
“They’ve got some stallions over there. They just get up and down the floor. We won’t see another team that’s as athletic as they are the rest of the way.”
In keeping with the Lakers’ newfound humility, they weren’t burdened with heavy expectations before Game 6, with Lakers fans reassuring themselves Game 7 would be in Staples when, er, if needed.
Before the game, Coach Phil Jackson, called upon to explain why teams play better at home, trotted out his famous whimsy.
“You have to remember, these guys are out there in their underwear, or their shorts,” said Jackson.
“These aren’t like the old days [when uniform shorts were like Speedos] but they are scantily clad and there they are, in front of their fans.
“If you’re at all self-conscious, you know, there you are.”
That’s what experience does for you. Phil, at least, wasn’t nervous.
The Lakers proceeded to take it to the Thunder all night, with Bryant scoring 30 points in the first three quarters.
Amazingly, the Thunder stayed with them, despite Kevin Durant’s five-for-23 shooting with Russell Westbrook, another budding star, providing 21 points and leading a rally that gave them a three-point lead in the last 2:11.
The Thunder then messed up the rest of its possessions, Bryant drilled a 20-footer to cut the deficit to one with 2:11 left, and Gasol rebounded his miss with 0.5 seconds left.
Chalk that up to experience too. That and greatness.
“I wish the Lakers well the rest of the way,” said Brooks. “I wish the Lakers health the rest of the way.”
The Lakers appreciate the good wishes and they’ll definitely need the health. Oklahoma City in their rearview mirror works too.
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