Sunday April 18th, 2010

The Lakers won a blasé 87-79 opener over the young Thunder, who finished seven games behind the defending champs over the regular season but exhibited a much larger deficit in terms of experience and guile Sunday.

Round 1 to Artest. Kevin Durant was held to 24 points on 24 shots, thanks mainly to Ron Artest, who led the Lakers' team defense against Oklahoma City's star. As nervous as the Thunder were -- five of their top seven players were making playoff debuts -- this was a bigger game for Artest, hired by the Lakers to snuff out postseason threats like Durant. The 21-year-old All-Star committed four turnovers while going 1 for 8 from the three-point line and receiving little offensive assistance apart from Russell Westbrook's 23 points. While Artest himself went just 1 for 8 from the three-point range, a more glaring failure was his choice to enter the postseason with orange hair. Even Strom Thurmond would have been ashamed.

Andrew Bynum's healthy return. Granted, he received little push-back from Thunder center Nenad Krstic, but Bynum looked strong (13 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks over 30 minutes) in his first game since suffering a left Achilles strain March 19. Bynum and fellow 7-footer Pau Gasol combined for 32 points, 25 rebounds and 7 blocks in a highly impressive display that will be disheartening to the Mavericks and other rivals hoping to upset the Lakers in the later rounds.

The Lakers secret weapon? It isn't their offense. They finished No. 5 in field-goal defense in the regular season, and with Artest liberated to play physically on the ball as Gasol and Bynum protect the rim behind him, the Lakers look likely to create a more physical and intimidating presence defensively over this postseason run. They held Oklahoma City to 40.3 percent overall and used an early 17-point lead to control the game, rarely appearing to feel threatened, even as the Thunder closed to within six points in the final three minutes. The champs won this game routinely, the way Larry Holmes used to win 12-round decisions.

Dangerous Westbrook. The explosive second-year point guard scored the Thunder's final eight points of the second quarter to drive them within 47-39 at halftime. Westbrook won his matchup overall, and yet the last laugh went to 35-year-old Derek Fisher, whose guffawing three gave L.A. a 10-point lead with 90 seconds to go. Westbrook did much of his damage in transition, but the Lakers can live with those moments so long as their team defense keeps Durant muzzled. The question now: Can Westbrook exploit his matchup to create opportunities for Durant? Because the Thunder have no hope if the point guard is their most efficient threat.

Kobe's health. The Lakers spent the second half of the season managing Bryant's health, but he looked strong despite missing 13 of 19 shots for 21 points in 41 minutes. The day's most stirring play was his lefthanded block of a transition drive as his fellow Lakers surrounded Durant to slow him in the open floor, enabling Bryant to circle around and wallop the ball like a volleyball striker at the net.

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