LOS ANGELES -- The defending champions finally showed up to Staples Center on Tuesday night, fashionably late as always. They limped in looking old and tired and beaten. They sprinted out looking unstoppable. The Lakers, convalescent compared to the puckish Oklahoma City Thunder, seemed to find their legs all at once. They led 10-0 after four minutes. They led by 20 in the second quarter. They led by 30 in the third. Whether the Lakers go on to repeat as champions is anybody's guess, but in a 111-87 thumping of the Thunder in Game 5, they at least showed they are still capable.
Never mind the Lakers dropped nine of 15 to close the regular season and were pounded last week in Oklahoma City, including a blowout in Game 4 that portended an early end to their title defense. With the Lakers, one game does not say anything about the next, because their best performances almost inevitably follow their worst. Whether they are hustlers or flakes, they have to be the hardest team in the league to handicap.
Take small forward Ron Artest, for example, who was shooting 13 percent from 3-point range in the series and was admonished by coaches not to shoot any more 3s from the corner. How did Artest respond? Of course, in the first quarter he took a three from the corner -- and sank it. That set a tone for the Lakers to do just about everything they had not. After surrendering 47 fast-break points over two games in Oklahoma City, they allowed just seven. After getting beaten on the backboards, they won the rebounding margin and blocked 10 shots. After letting Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook make repeated bull runs at the rim, they knocked him to the floor twice in the first half.
Even the crowd at Staples, after watching the clinic put on by fans in Oklahoma City last week, raised their decibel level. They might have been mystified by their team's 180-degree turnaround if they had not witnessed the Lakers' maddening now-you-see-me-now-you-don't magic trick so many times before. Anxious moments in Los Angeles, early in the playoffs, against seemingly inferior opponents, have become rites of spring. Last season, when the Rockets pushed the Lakers to seven games without Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant referred to his team as "bipolar." Apparently, that condition is not changing, even if other parts of their identity are.
When the Lakers won the championship last season, it was all about Bryant. If they repeat, it will still be about Bryant, but others will be part of the narrative. The way the Lakers tore through the Thunder on Tuesday is the way they will have to undo every opponent they face over the next two months. Pounding the ball inside to exploit their stark size advantage, center Andrew Bynum and power forward Pau Gasol finished with a combined 46 points on an efficient 18 of 26 shooting. With Gasol passing and Bynum finishing, the Lakers big men played the two-man game that they have been trying (often unsuccessfully) to develop all season.
"We moved the basketball a lot better today," Bynum said. "Everybody was passing, cutting, and we were just getting good offensive opportunities every time."
Bryant chipped in 13 points and locked up Westbrook when no one else could, but he sounded proudest of his seven assists. When Bryant is moving the ball, the other Lakers tend to follow. "It's like conducting an orchestra, a symphony," he said. Bryant and the Lakers are clearly at their best when he is playing the most instruments. But with his sore right knee and arthritic knuckle on his shooting hand, he is searching for a new role, and the Lakers seem to be searching with him. Because Bryant has been such a dominant part of the offense for so long, the transition cannot be easy. Still, the Lakers are on the verge of outlasting the Thunder and drawing a second-round match-up against the Jazz, who they traditionally dominate at home.
Of course, nothing can be presumed with these Lakers, because just as their gems follow their clunkers, the opposite is also true. For most reigning champions, a landslide in Game 5 might foreshadow a close-out in Game 6, but if history is any indication, the Lakers will take to the high wire yet again Friday. "They're going to have to have the energy within themselves to do it," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
If they fail, they will return to Staples for Game 7, and more nervous time. You'd think they would dread that possibility. It seems, however, that they don't.