Whew. Whoa. Ouch. Is it over yet?
Has the state of Oklahoma finally stopped bellowing? Has Russell Westbrook stopped flying? Has Kevin Durant stopped flopping?
It’s over. It must be over. The game-winning tip from Pau Gasol trickled into the basket like the blood trickling down his shoulder. The final shot from Westbrook pounded off the front of the rim like Durant later pounded his hands on the hardwood.
It’s finished, right? The 18,000 Ford Center fans won’t leave their seats, the Lakers can’t catch their breath, but, yes, it must be done, the scoreboard showing the Lakers clinching a first-round playoff series victory just one breath short of panic Friday in a 95-94 Game 6 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Tough,” Ron Artest said, confirming it with his tired voice and his wrecked body, sitting in front of his locker with two ice packs on his knee and one on his shoulder. “Tough.”
Man alive. Enough already. The Lakers didn’t win this series, they escaped it. They didn’t beat an eighth-seeded opponent, they beat a heavyweight contender.
They spent more than a week mostly stumbling around against the league’s youngest and fastest team, allowing themselves to be pushed to a Game 6, then show their championship mettle and grab a seven-point lead with five minutes left, and what happens?
Tough got tougher. The noise grew louder, rattling your courtside keyboard, making it impossible to hear anything but Thunder. The giant white balloons -- Thundersticks, of course -- incessantly flapped, pounding the head, again and again.
And the Lakers began to fold. Gasol charged. Kobe Bryant bricked. Gasol fumbled. The Thunder drained and dunked and finger rolled and, suddenly, the Lakers were trailing by a point in the final seconds.
It is over yet? Fittingly, it was over only after one star rescued another, Gasol charging the lane as Bryant’s jump shot bounced off, Gasol grabbing the ball with two hands and putting it back in the basket with 0.5 seconds remaining.
Gasol’s pouty face has rarely lighted up so brilliantly, his scream has rarely seemed so huge, a Lakers first-round series in the Phil Jackson era has never ended with such emotion and exhaustion.
And it figures that in complimenting the hero, Artest also chided him.
“A couple of times in the game, Pau fell asleep,” Artest said. “But when it counted most, he gave his most effort.”
There were times the Lakers all fell asleep in this series, and only in the end did they realize it nearly cost them a legacy, and thus they were more thankful than jubilant, filled with more sighs than superlatives.
In a Ford Center hallway after, Bryant walked up to Durant and Westbrook and hugged them both.
“You-all are two bad. . .” he said. “I’m glad we’re done with you.”
He should not be the only one. Lakers fans, you have just dodged your most dangerous bullet on the road to the Finals.
Nothing else in the Western Conference will be as tough as this series. No offense to Utah and San Antonio and Phoenix, but none of those matchups will be as difficult, none of those trips will be as hard, nothing will compare to this.
Playing this series was like beginning a title fight in the 14th round. It was like starting a marathon on Heartbreak Hill.
It was awful while they were doing it. But they should consider it helpful now that it is done. Because now, the Lakers know.
“It was great for us to get through this, to know that we’re not the best thing since sliced bread,” Artest said. “We know we have to work. We learned we can’t fall asleep.”
They learned some other things here, beginning with Artest, who still seemingly has no idea where he is supposed to be on offense, ever, but who knows exactly what he should do on defense.
Durant, the league’s leading scorer, finished his final playoff game this season with five baskets in 23 attempts. He was so beaten that in the end, he wobbled around as if lost, unable to save the team that sat on his shoulders, and the reason he struggled?
“You’re looking at him,” Artest said with a smile. “He would have scored 40 points a night against anybody else. I won’t have to guard anybody else like him the rest of the playoffs.”
Artest is ready for the rest of the fight. The Lakers also learned that, while Bryant is weary and injured, with enough rest and incentive, he is also ready. After two days off, he was able to get to the basket Friday, make things happen, 32 points’ worth, no excuses needed.
Yet most important, they learned that, as an NBA championship team, they’re not ready. No way. Good enough to beat Oklahoma City means good enough to beat everyone else remaining in the West, but not Cleveland or Orlando, not with maddening moments like Friday night’s.
More than winners here, they are survivors. They will eventually have to be more.