LOS ANGELES -- By the look of the postgame press conference, it was tough to tell that this was all about maturity for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Russell Westbrook walked in wearing yet another shirt straight from the Osh Kosh rack, along with those lens-less glasses that have become as chic as the endless debate over which NBA stars are and aren't clutch enough for the public's liking. Kevin Durant was donning a debonair suit, custom fit with a small carnation on the lapel that made him look like the ring bearer at a wedding.
But this imperfect union is indeed about growth, about the league's top young talents evolving in the sort of steady way that has long since scared their peers and has them on the verge of the Western Conference Finals for the second straight year. The latest growth spurt was on display late Saturday night, where a sellout crowd that had reveled in the Lakers' dominance sat in silence as the Thunder pulled off a 103-100 stunner at the Staples Center that gave them a commanding 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals.
It was Westbrook, who scored 37 points in all and 10 in the final period in which the Thunder came back from nine points down with 6:03 remaining. It was Durant, finishing with 31 points and burying the coldblooded three-pointer with 33.9 seconds left that won it. It was the product of a four-year relationship that, while strained at times, has worked because of the institutional dedication to a team-first culture that is tough to come by in professional sports. And beyond the box score, it was so much different than the way things are done in Laker Land.
Just minutes after the two young Thunder stars heaped praise on one another while discussing their latest step forward, Kobe Bryant took the same podium and took a decidedly different approach when asked about a late-game blunder from Pau Gasol. The Lakers forward had made a crucial error that led to Durant's three, receiving a pass on the right wing and ignoring both the open jumpshot and the possible lob pass to center Andrew Bynum. He swung the ball timidly to Metta World Peace instead, and Durant stole the pass and buried his 26-foot three from atop the arc as the 18,997 on hand went quiet.
It was, without question, a mental mistake. One Lakers source said Gasol -- who had just 10 points and five rebounds -- hadn't swung that pass all season long. The play, the source said, is designed either for Gasol to shoot or to find Bynum down low for an alley-oop (Bynum was open, too).
Nonetheless, it was one play during a six-minute stretch in which they scored just six points. Yet Bryant, perhaps forgetting about the crucial turnover he had late in Game 2 that was key in the loss (or the fact that he was 2 of 10 in the fourth quarter in which Durant was effective once again in guarding him), clearly missed the exit for the high road when assessing the play.
"Pau's got to be more assertive," he said while shaking his head. "He's the guy who, when he's catching the ball, he's looking to pass. He's got to be aggressive. He's got to drive the ball to the basket, and he will the next game.
"He's just looking to swing the ball too much. He's got to shoot it."
He made one of those vintage Kobe faces as he said it, the kind of nose-crunching smirks that Lakers coach Mike Brown had been playfully imitating before the game. Brown had done so while discussing the experience of coaching such a demanding talent like Bryant, talking about Bryant's reaction whenever he brought up the ways in which he could create better matchups for his future Hall of Famer.
Brown's point was that Bryant will never worry about such menial methods like creating mismatches, or missing late-game looks, or even coughing up the ball at the most inopportune of times. He is wired that way for better and for worse, and it occasionally rears its ugly head in the direction of the teammates that have never been able to live up to his chosen standards.
Bryant was spectacular until the end, scoring on an array of fadeaway jumpers and drives that continued to make him the medical marvel of the 2011-12 campaign. The right knee that was such a problem in the last two postseasons looked like new thanks to his offseason procedure in Dusseldorf, Germany, by unofficial Lakers MVP, Dr. Peter Wehling. He followed his 38-point outing from Game 3 with this 36-point performance, his 12-of-28 shooting a marked improvement from the 9-of-25 affair from the night before.
Yet those numbers alone show that he's far from perfect, not to mention the part he played in the Lakers going away from center Andrew Bynum after his 10-point, 5-of-5 first quarter set the perfect tone at the start. Bynum finished with 18 points on 9-of-15 shooting (one of two in the fourth), and Bryant wasn't about to take any blame for that one either. Regardless of the reason, the Lakers' continued inability to create a consistent 1-2 punch in Bryant and Bynum was a problem once again.
"In the second half, what they did was they front Andrew," he began. "And when they front Andrew, and in the fourth quarter they crowd me (defensively), the guys have got to be more aggressive. Simple as that."
In his mind, anyway. And while his Lakers seemed to regress once again, this Thunder team that they downed en route to the 2010 championship during more harmonious times was more than happy to get series breathing room at their expense.
It wasn't too long ago that Westbrook was reportedly the malcontent, a player who supposedly envied Durant's golden-boy status and was reluctant to give up his spotlight in ways not too dissimilar to Bryant and his tale. On Saturday night, however, it was this.
"He's the best scorer in the game," Westbrook said of Durant. "He's proven it all season long. He has the confidence in the closing minutes in the fourth quarter and my job as a point guard is to let him finish the games off for us like he's been doing all year and he did a great job for us tonight."
Looking more grown up by the day.