OKLAHOMA CITY -- As the red and blue streamers dropped from the sky around the fallen Lakers faces, it felt like more than the end of a series.
With “Takin’ Care of Business” thumping and thousands rhythmically clapping around the staggering Lakers bodies, it felt like more than the end of a season.
What happened here on a strange and sad Monday night felt like the end of an era.
Kobe Bryant’s window to win a sixth championship in Los Angeles may have officially shut, and who knows whether he will want to stick around to spend his final years pressing his nose against the glass?
In the two seasons since they won the fifth championship of the Kobe era, the Lakers have lost their famed head coach, their celebrated locker room leader, and the powerful influence of their aging owner.
Now they have been dragged to the curb of two consecutive postseasons like bags of old clothes, this time in a 106-90 loss to Oklahoma City that gave the Thunder a 4-1 series victory in the second round.
The Lakers flew home late Monday night with the raucous boos from the Chesapeake Energy Arena fans ringing in their ears while their future looked silent and brooding.
Combine this loss with the four-game sweep by Dallas in last year’s second round, and this is a team that has gone 9-13 in the last two postseasons.
Combine Monday’s four-rebound game from Andrew Bynum with his inconsistent playoffs and turbulent regular season, and this is a team whose brightest young star is a dim bulb.
When Coach Mike Brown was asked late Monday where the Lakers go from here, he shook his head.
“No place,” said the usually cheery Brown, who finally looked drained as his first Lakers season mercifully ended. “We have a long time to think about it.”
Brown showed up for his postgame news conference in a white dress shirt, black sweat pants and tennis shoes, the perfect outfit for this mismatched team.
Seriously, what now?
Bryant, who showed up for his postgame interview in baggy sweat pants instead of his usual fancy suit, sounded both defiant and confused.
One moment, he said, “I’m not fading into the shadows.... I’m not going anywhere.... We’re not going anywhere.... We’ve built title teams pretty quickly....We just have to do it again.… Come hell or high water, we’re going to be there again.”
But then in another moment, when asked about the future, he said, “I’m not really sure, I don’t really know, that’s a loaded question.… This is kind of unfamiliar territory.... It’s pretty odd for me, I’m not the most patient of people.”
But then he added, “I’m sure we’ll figure it out, we always have.”
But what if they can’t? And right now, it seems as if the salary cap and roster composition are going to make it nearly impossible to figure out, and so what does Bryant, who turns 34 in August, do then?
“It’s different being 21 years old, with an endless amount of opportunity,” admitted Bryant. “At 33, the ending is much, much closer.... You definitely become even more hungry, more impatient.”
Will he have enough patience to avoid the temptation to ask for a trade to a team that can help him win his coveted sixth title? It will be certainly be interesting, but the Lakers prospects of making him happy certainly don’t look good.
When David Stern killed the Chris Paul trade at the beginning of this season, one Laker official quietly estimated the commissioner may have hindered the club for the next five years. I initially thought he was exaggerating, but now I’m not so sure.
Bryant has peaked, and even his famed hunger doesn’t work so much anymore. He scored 42 points with zero assists Monday on a night when the Thunder pulled away in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter while he sat wearily on the bench.
Pau Gasol, who will never again feel secure here after the nullified trade, has peaked as a Laker. He played hard early Monday but disappeared late, and wound up spending most of that awful final quarter openly bickering with Bryant on the court.
Metta World Peace has peaked, with an act that is as tired as his excuses. He cost the Lakers momentum at the end of Monday’s first half when he received a technical foul for complaining about a flagrant foul call on Thabo Sefolosha, which could have gone either way but was ultimately decided by his reputation.
Then there is Ramon Sessions, whose ceiling doesn’t appear much higher than a backup point guard. His one basket and six assists on a night when he played 40 minutes should show the Lakers they can’t count on him .
The one Laker who could help them extend the Kobe era is Bynum, but he has such a horrible attitude, that improvement will probably be accompanied by more team-killing entitlement.
How does a guy that big, playing in an elimination game this big, get zero offensive rebounds?
“Obviously, we need more from him,” said Brown.
Can they draft anyone? No, they have only the 60th pick in this summer’s 60-player draft. Can they sign a top free agent? No, they are too far over the salary cap.
Their only hope is the make a score in another deal for Gasol. I’m pretty certain Mitch Kupchak is on the phone doing that right now, just as soon as he picks those streamers out of his hair and gets that thunderous music out of his ears.