I’m the kind of sports fan that’s always looking for a sign. Something, anything, that could be a good omen for my team. Whether it be some kind of past history like, “In even years, the Lakers have lost their last five opening round playoff games.” (I just made that up.) Or maybe something simple, like my brother who did really well in his March Madness bracket picking the Thunder to win. I’m easy like that.
So this week, I’ve been hunting signs. I’ve been waiting for a good omen. I thought maybe the fact it rained and stormed all weekend might be something good. You know, Thunder and all. I like the tie-in with probably one of the biggest moments in state history coinciding with the greatest tragedy, the Murrah bombing. But that’s not good enough. It’s not enough for me to feel like it’s destiny. So I waited for something to hit me.
And guess what? Nothing did. There was no grand sign or moment that made this feel meant to be. I threw up the day of OU’s 2003 demolition of Texas. I briefly considered gagging myself this morning. I had a 12-game hit streak in high school once and before each game, I listened to The Joshua Tree on the way to the park. I’ve been waiting to randomly hear “Red Hill Mining Town” in some grocery store or something. I even thought about growing a lucky playoff mustache. I’m superstitious like that. Mrs. DT vetoed that. Every bit of that stuff helps and when you’re playing the Lakers, you feel like you need fate on your side. There’s no way we can do it on our own, we need destiny! We need help! But nope. No sign from above.
So we’re going in cold. Which is actually kind of the way I like it. Much like the season, there’s no expectation for anything. Honestly, playing the Lakers might be the best thing that could have happened to the Thunder. If OKC had landed the four or five-seed and drawn a favorable matchup, there might have been pressure. Expectations. Fear. But instead, everyone is just happy to be here and whatever our group does, I think we’ll all agree it was a fantastic season. And I think that’s the way they like it. Fine, don’t believe in us. We’re too young. We’re too inexperienced. We have no shot. That’s cool, keep thinking that.
Maybe there’s no destiny on our side, but some pretty providential things brought us to this point. Hurricane Katrina. David Stern taking a chance with the Hornets. Clay Bennett buying the franchise. Portland taking Greg Oden. The ugly relocation. The painful growing year. And this year, four starters starting all 82 games. Something is going right and I don’t need some stupid song to make me believe it could be our time. Because it very well could be, defending champs in our way or not. Why not, right?
So while we get ready for some awesomely huge games and hopefully some unforgettable moments that we’ll talk about for the next 25 years, let’s break it all down.
The Starting Five
On paper, advantage LA. No doubt. But once you start digging a little deeper and really checking the head-to-heads, it’s not as lopsided as you might think. Russell Westbrook has a clear edge on Derek Fisher. Thabo isn’t going to neutralize Kobe Bryant by any means, but there could be a game or two Thabo forces him into six turnovers and 8-21 shooting. Ron Artest is a tough matchup for Kevin Durant, but likewise for Artest. KD is one of the most impossible players in the league to defend, and it doesn’t matter who is checking him. Pau Gasol is bigger, stronger and more skilled than Jeff Green. So yeah, I can’t really tilt that one for OKC. But with a healthy Nenad Krstic and a maybe healthy up Andrew Bynum, the Lakers inside advantage isn’t a landslide.
Add all that up and you’ve got a 3-2 margin for LA, depending on Bynum’s health. Both teams have a superstar to rely on. Both teams have a stopper to check the other’s superstar that they will rely on. But only one team has a playmaking point guard that could take things over. Then again, only one team has a gifted big man that can dominate the paint on both ends. It’s really a closer matchup than you think.
But these are the Lakers and Kobe is one of the best playoff players ever. Derek Fisher has all the experience and playoff savvy-ness. That’s tough to match. So the scale tilts LA’s way. But not by much. OKC has a ton of talent in its starting unit and with guys like Durant and Westbrook, a takeover could happen at any moment.
How does this sound: Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, D.J. Mbenga and Shannon Brown. Is that a second unit that really strikes fear in you? Now add a few injuries, toss in a little rust and what you’ve got is a large edge in favor of the Thunder. Granted, three of OKC’s main bench producers are rookies and so you don’t know how they’ll react to this series. But all four (Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Eric Maynor) are completely capable of breaking out and having a big game on any given night. I don’t think you can say the same for LA.
Last time in OKC, the Thunder bench absolutely destroyed the Laker second unit. It was really the difference in the game. If Harden can provide some scoring pop off the pine, Collison can grind, Ibaka add his patented energy and Maynor toss in some steadiness, this could be a large advantage OKC’s way.
Home Court Advantage
We know what Staples will be like. Loud crowds, high energy and really intense fourth quarters. But here’s the thing: We have no idea what the Ford Center will be like. And I mean that in a good way. Oklahoma City has already been set on fire with playoff buzz, and I can’t even imagine what OKC will be like next Thursday night. And just think if the Thunder somehow pulls out a game in LA. Coming back to the Ford 1-1… I almost would fear for my life going downtown. I’m getting chills just thinking about it.
When the Thunder rolled LA in the Ford Center a month ago, the place was rocking. Lakers were actually looking around a bit, looking visibly rattled. And with the magnitude cranked up another notch, it’s almost scary to think about it. OKC will need to win every one of its three games at home, and the Ford Center may prove to be a deciding factor in doing just that.
Kevin Durant is the youngest ever to win a scoring title. He’s awesome. He’s unreal. We know all this. But come playoff basketball, I don’t know if you’d rather have anyone over Kobe Bryant. He’s going to hit big shots, make big plays and take his group to a higher place. He can do it because he’s had a lot of practice at it. When he was a bright-eyed 21-year-old, he wasn’t doing a whole lot more than playing a specific role. Meanwhile, Durant is already The Man for his team.
KD’s time will come when he’s a playoff fixture and a guy everyone fears in the postseason, but right now, no one messes with the Mamba.
I really think the Ford Center will be a major piece to the puzzle if OKC is to shock the world, but as far as players, I’d say Serge Ibaka has a monster chance to break out and alert the world to his talents. I can almost envision a blossoming like Marcus Camby had with the Knicks in the 1999 playoffs. He was everywhere – blocking shots, grabbing offensive rebounds, putting back dunks – it was a total breakout party. And Ibaka could be poised to do the exact same thing.
Lamar Odom’s nickname should probably be “X-Factor” because he’s such an on and off player, that you never know what kind of player you’ll get. But when he’s on and ready to go, he’s one of the most dynamic players in the league. He’s gifted with an unreal skillset for a 6’10 guy and can control games all by his lonesome.
But I think I’m going with Ibaka here. Mainly because the Thunder needs him to blossom. The Lakers have a decided advantage inside, but in the four games against LA, Ibaka has been stellar, recording five blocks in one game. If Ibaka breaks out of his shell and turns into a defensive force, the Thunder might be able to ride that to a win or two. That’s what I call a series-changing X-Factor.
Nobody loves each other more than the Thunder. They literally are all best friends. And that sort of thing can carry you a long way. You fight for your teammate. You’ve got his back. You want to do what’s necessary to help him succeed. It’s all about the team because you feel for the guy next to you. The Thunder has a decided edge in chemistry, but how much does that help you in the playoffs? OKC is going to feel like the world is against them and if they can hold tight and stay together, they have a chance. And the only way to do that is to trust and love your teammates. So I think it will help. Some.
Ron Artest plays for the Lakers. He’s died his hair yellow, shaved odd things in it, worn No. 93, currently wears No. 37 in honor of Michael Jackson, fought fans in Detroit, put out a terrible rap album, has said countless crazy things, maybe hit his wife and drank Hennessy during halftime.
Scott Brooks has done an amazing job. To get a group this young to buy into a philosophy and change a culture is incredible. But come on, Phil Jackson has 10 rings.
Big Question Marks
Is Kobe’s knee healthy? How’s his finger? What about Andrew Bynum’s achilles? Is the Laker bench healthy? Are they in a funk right now? Are they too old? A bit dysfunctional? Are they vulnerable? How about Kevin Durant? Did Phil Jackson get in his head? Are the Thunder too young? Too raw? Do they need to be burned in the playoffs before they can win? Can Russell Westbrook handle the load? Is there any way Oklahoma City can actually win this series?
I guess the only thing to say is, why the heck not? Maybe this Thunder squad isn’t a team of destiny. Maybe this series hasn’t been predetermined by the basketball gods as a breaking out party for Kevin Durant and a changing of the guard. And maybe I’m a complete sports lunatic for being so superstitious about this crap. But whatever the case, Oklahoma City has a real shot at this. It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a fight. And it’s going to be a ton of fun.
I’m going Lakers in seven, but honestly, when you get to that seventh game, anything can happen. I don’t know if it’s the Thunder’s time so soon, but I think they’re going to surprise some people. They’re ready to make a statement and even in defeat, they’re going to make a little noise.