Wednesday April 21st, 2010

Clearly, the Los Angeles Lakers aren't read to pass the torch to another Western Conference power. But when they are, the Oklahoma City Thunder are ready to take it. In an entertaining matchup between two elite teams -- and two supremely talented players -- the Lakers survived, taking a 2-0 lead in their first round series.

Curse you, calendar. It's a shame that Kobe Bryant, 31, is on the back end of his career. Because his matchups with Kevin Durant have the potential to be as compelling as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, perhaps better with the number of times the two square off competing in the same conference. Tuesday night was an edge-of-your-seat kind of duel between two gifted offensive players, with the crafty veteran Bryant (39 points) narrowly edging the young lion Durant (32 points) on both the box score and, more importantly, the scoreboard. Both highly intelligent, both diverse scorers, both cerebral in the way they play the game. These two are really fun to watch.

Ron Artest earned his money -- again. Durant committed a game-high eight turnovers, most of which can be attributed to the hounding defense of Artest. There is no question Artest benefits from his reputation as a physical player; referees allow him to mug Durant off the ball. But Artest contested everything and forced an amount of shots (26) that the Lakers can live with giving up 32 points.

Where's the help? Bryant and Pau Gasol (25 points) were terrific. Everyone else, well, wasn't. Andrew Bynum pulled down 10 rebounds but scored six points (on 3-for-9 shooting) and committed two turnovers. The aforementioned Artest did his job defensively but chipped in just five points (on 2-for-10 shooting) and made just one of his six three-point attempts. Derek Fisher was truly awful: Fisher's line nearly mirrors Artest's (five points on 2-for-10 shooting) but Fisher also turned it over three times, fouled out and finished the game a whopping minus-12. He also wasn't much of a deterrent on Russell Westbrook (19 points). Give a lot of credit to the Thunder defenders: they have been solid since opening night and held L.A. to 37.5 percent shooting. But the Lakers are the reigning champions. They need a lot more from their role players if they expect to repeat.

There is a second go-to guy on the Thunder. Obviously Durant has earned the right to take the last shot. But as Durant's potential go-ahead three was bouncing off the iron late in the fourth quarter, I wondered if Westbrook would have been the better option. There is no one on the Lakers roster -- Bryant included -- who can stay with Westbook off the dribble. With Artest blanketing Durant and the Thunder trailing by two, allowing Westbrook -- who was 8-for-8 from the free throw line -- the opportunity to attack the rim in the situation might have been the better call.

Get to know Serge Ibaka. Many questioned why Thunder GM Sam Presti didn't make a play for a defensive-minded center like Marcus Camby at the trade deadline. Ibaka is why. Acquiring Camby would have made sense in the short term, but Presti has never stopped looking at the Thunder through a long-term lens. And through that lens he sees Ibaka as the defensive stopper the Thunder need. In 28 physical minutes, the 6-foot-10, 235-pound Ibaka (six points, five rebounds) banged bodies with the bigger Bynum and Gasol, finishing the game a team-high plus-six. The experience Ibaka is getting now is only going to make him a more effective player down the line.

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