At least they didn’t get swept? At least they “only” lost by 16 points? At least no one got ejected? It’s all that came to mind on this night, but all the silver linings located in all the clouds in the sky will not remedy the end of a shortened, rollercoaster of a season that was, again, not punctuated by a podium presentation or a parade through Downtown Los Angeles.
Maybe it was obvious in the Game 2 or Game 4 losses, or maybe in the three games that it took to eliminate the Denver Nuggets in the first round. Maybe it was obvious in the ups and downs of the regular season that had observers excited and in awe after a string of wins, and then shooting criticisms at the next series of losses. One thing was for sure – this was not the same hungry, driven Laker team who won the most recent back-to-back championships. This was a team trying to hold on to what was left after a new coaching staff and a new set of teammates were put together at the beginning of the season and asked to do something great, and perhaps impossible, like make a championship run.
ALMOST winning Game 2 and ALMOST winning Game 4 of this series left a mark that could not be erased in this final chance to keep their playoff run alive. They’d already been given too many chances in this post-season and tonight was the last straw. They didn’t go quietly, however. They were down by just five points after the first quarter, and then produced a 61%, 30-point second quarter. In the first 36 minutes of the game, the Thunder led by no more than seven points, there were 16 lead changes and eight ties. But in the final quarter, OKC decided to finally finish their opponents off, leading by as much as 18 points.
Unlike the last time they bid farewell in the post-season two years ago, it was the Thunder giving the Lakers the concession handshakes and hugs, instead of the other way around. Kobe Bryant, being the competitor that he is, may have lost to this younger bunch, but he carries a great deal of respect for the new era of players in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
“This is their moment,” Metta World Peace said of the OKC Thunder. “We had ours.”
Kobe Bryant – He doesn’t know the meaning of the term “give in.” In an elimination game that needed him to be great, Bryant was just that. He had poured in 15 points by the end of the first quarter alone, led the game going into halftime with 19 points, and by the end he had contributed a 42-point night, adding in five rebounds and two steals. He played almost 45 minutes, the most of any player in the game, and he didn’t sub out until there was under a minute left and the Thunder had an insurmountable 15-point lead. He went down fighting, and no one expected any less.
Pau Gasol – For everything he has gone through this past season, especially taking a backseat to the emergence of Andrew Bynum, Gasol reminded us tonight of what he’s able to contribute when he’s not playing second fiddle to Bynum’s presence in the post. Bynum had early foul trouble, and his body language suggested a sentiment we’ve seen all too often from him this past season – disengagement. Fortunately for Gasol, an opportunity arose for him to arise. He chipped in 14 points, grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds, handed out two assists and blocked three shots.
Metta World Peace – Cited by Kobe Bryant as the only teammate on whose intensity he can depend on in every game, he worked hard as he does every night, keeping tabs on Kevin Durant, and at times Russell Westbrook. He had 11 points on 4-5 from the field, three rebounds, handed out five assists and two steals. Despite what the unfair treatment from the officials says, his defense in this series wasn’t matched by any other teammate. He blocked Thabo Sefalosha on his way to a fastbreak dunk, and though every single replay from every angle showed that he had all ball, he was still tacked with a Flagrant-1, and a technical for arguing the call.
Andrew Bynum – The version of Bynum that finished with a triple double, highlighted by 10 blocks in Game 1 of the Denver series, has show up in spurts, but that was the most of it. Showing up in spurts doesn’t win championships. Even the injured Bynum in the 2010 playoff run showed more heart and effort than this version who appears to have mastered some skills, but refuses to exercise them on a nightly basis. Add to that a refusal to share in congratulatory handshakes after the game, or skipping meetings with the General Manager and the Lakers have themselves one of many issues to discuss in the off-season.
Derek Fisher in the opponents’ uniform – In a game that brought his new team another round closer to a championship, Derek Fisher saying farewell to Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant on the court just didn’t look right. He held Gasol in a long embrace, perhaps sharing words he may have shared anyway if they were wearing the same jersey. Footage was shown of him giving an inspirational talk in a huddle before the Thunder entered onto the court. The entire scene and all the circumstances that surround DFish just looked wrong, and will probably be one bitter bill that Laker loyalists will be popping for awhile.
Another second round exit – Sometimes you ask if it had been better if they had been dominated and swept as was the case against Dallas last season, or if the close games and almost-wins actually hurt more. Either way, it was another second round exodus for the Lakers. In a season of so many highs and lows, this has to be one of the lowest.
We can’t say they didn’t try, nor discovered some things along the way. But for tonight, the expectations finally ran out against a team who, over the last few years, has also had to deal with expectations of their own. The Thunder are much younger, and perhaps more driven to prove what they’ve been trying so hard to prove the last few seasons – that they’re worthy of some greatness too. But don’t rule Kobe Bryant out just yet.
“I’m not fading into the shadows,” Bryant said in his post-game presser. “I’m not going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere.”
As a faithful fan, it’s the most encouraging thing to hear on a night like tonight.