When you play like Russell Westbrook does, you're allowed to be the guy wearing sunglasses indoors. Kind of. (Getty …
Oklahoma City Thunder 106, Los Angeles Lakers 90 (Thunder win series, 4-1)
We'll delve into the future of those ridiculous, marvelous, enervating, invigorating, fantastic, maddening, frustrating and ultimately obsession-worthy Los Angeles Lakers deeper on Tuesday. For now, the spotlight deservedly shines on the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have taken down two of the NBA's most respected teams in 23 days, working at an 8-1 clip along that span. We're completely and utterly correct as we fawn over the San Antonio Spurs, but that undefeated group hasn't had to deal with nearly the level of competition that Scott Brooks' crew has.
Any batch of Thunder-related praise has to begin with Russell Westbrook. Not only did he give his team a feature that the Lakers could not handle — the guy with the ability to frighten and shift defensive schemes just off of broken plays or transition work — but he ended the second round with a fascinating statistic to his credit. Westbrook played just under 180 minutes in this series, and turned the ball over four times. That's 36 minutes a night, full of active play that put Los Angeles on its heels, and he turned it over four times in five contests. Astonishing work.
RW managed 28 points on 25 shots in the Game 5 win, not the most efficient output there, but more than enough to make you wonder if the Thunder, and not a Spurs team featuring Tony Parker, will have the point guard edge in the Western Conference finals. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though.
Kevin Durant managed 25 points and 10 rebounds. Kendrick Perkins and his bum hip helped keep Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol (two stars that managed just four rebounds, and missed 9 of 14 shots, respectively) off balance, and Serge Ibaka changed three times as many shots as he blocked. He, um, blocked three shots.
The Thunder bench, though, was the difference.
James Harden, by far, managed his best shooting night of the series — coming through with 16 points on 10 shots, a well-deserved payoff after he kept his wits about him and defense active in a second round that he could have let slip away. Not only was Harden missing chippies in the lane earlier in this series, as the Lakers clearly made his penetration a point of order, but he had the misfortune of having to guard the great Kobe Bryant for long stretches of play, rarely getting the benefit of the whistle along the way. Harden could have pouted, or forced things, but instead he came through with a steady, determined level of effort that thankfully paid off in Game 5. A remarkable and warming brand of professionalism from the third-year guard.
Nick Collison was his typically active self off the ball on both ends, but he also managed to show up in the box score in this game with six points and six boards in the win. Such an underrated player. Derek Fisher continued to struggle on both sides of the ball, but Nazr Mohammed hit each of his three attempts from the field, all while the Lakers' bench barely played and definitely did not contribute.
Kobe Bryant was marvelous in his final game of the season, taking smart shots and scoring from all over on his way toward 42 points on 33 shots; but it wasn't enough. Bynum and Gasol just aren't comfortable playing alongside each other. The Lakers missed 9 of 11 3-pointers. They don't have a bench. And your tough, defensive-minded frontcourt players like Andrew Bynum and Metta World Peace can't both be outrebounded by point guard Ramon Sessions.
This is Oklahoma City's triumph, though. They had every chance to let this series drag on — giving up down the stretch of Game 2, assuming that the Lakers would hold serve at home in Game 4, failing to living up to the pressure of closing out in Game 5 — and yet Brooks' team responded in each of those potential defeats. For a team that has made it to the third round of the playoffs two years running, it's fascinating to watch this group continue to grow.
Outside of a loss to these same Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs haven't lost a game of significance since mid-March. That's going to change, real soon. The only question is how many times will it change, over the span of a seven-game term?
Because these Thunder are on it. Absolutely on it.
Boston Celtics 101, Philadelphia 76ers 85 (Boston leads series, 3-2)
Movement, movement, movement. The Boston Celtics pulled away in the second half of Game 5 because they brought both activity and achievement; overplaying on every single Philadelphia 76ers screen and roll on defense and refusing to stay settled on the offensive end. Because the C's did more than pick and pop, they were able to crack the 100-point barrier, a mark only the Celtics have managed (in just one other game) in 10 combined series tries by both teams. C's forward Brandon Bass, in a nice capper to what has been a frustrating few years for the cheery scoring forward, was the main beneficiary with 27 points.
Those active legs were just as prevalent on the defensive end, where the 76ers had to settle (I suppose, because Philly was really trying) for a litany of tough shots taken in the face of Boston's long-armed contention. By the time Boston pulled away in the second half, Philly's 50-point first half seemed like it took place three seasons ago. Every jumper was a fadeaway. Every lay in was a double-clutch. And though it didn't decide the game, not by a long shot, honesty compels me to point out that the Celtics were allowed to utilize the hands-on approach a bit more than the 76ers were on their defensive end.
That hardly mattered, though. Not with Bass bounding all over the court, and hitting nine free throws (OK, maybe the uneven officiating may have had a slight bit to do with the final outcome) on his way to those 27 points. It took him a while to get there, but Kevin Garnett rebounded back (even if he didn't do much rebounding, finishing with six in 33 minutes) from a terrible Game 4 to score 20 points on 17 shots, and Paul Pierce hit nine needed free throws. Fourteen assists for Rajon Rondo, who just had the arena on a string at times with his derring-do.
Derring-do, I say!
Free throws, right down to the exact number, were the difference. Boston was +16 in that area, and +16 in the game. And while I can't fault Philadelphia's effort, especially the relentless Lavoy Allen (who hit all six of his attempts from the field), somehow Boston was able to parlay its active play into pay dirt.
We suspect that, playing at home in Wednesday's Game 6, Philadelphia does the same. Just as long as Sixer coach Doug Collins listens to his own advice, and turns that frown upside down.
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