When this table was turned two years ago, the young Thunder falling to the mighty Lakers in six games in the first round of the playoffs, you could feel this coming.
The box scores didn't tell that story, although there was evidence there, too (two of the four losses came by a combined four points). It was more of a visceral thing, a sense that the Thunder's time was just beginning and the Lakers' -- champions though they would become that postseason -- was nearing an end.
There was a fearlessness about Oklahoma City, with relative unknown Russell Westbrook captaining that cause with a ferocious style that had Kobe Bryant & Co. on their heels throughout. There was the selflessness, too, a rare quality in the NBA implemented by general manager Sam Presti and coach Scott Brooks and executed, in large part, by a 21-year-old Kevin Durant.
The seemingly inevitable revenge came Monday night, when the Thunder's 106-90, series-ending win over the Lakers in Game 5 put them in the Western Conference finals for the second straight season. Having lost to the Mavericks last year, the Thunder will now face a San Antonio team that just so happens to have inspired their value system because of Presti's past work as Spurs video man turned assistant general manager. A return trip to the NBA's final four continues Oklahoma City's progression, with Presti's intuitive and intelligent roster tweaks meshing with the speedy development of players who have quickly become the game's best young stars.
Two years ago, a rookie out of Arizona State named James Harden was still earning Brooks' trust while so-called experts like myself wondered if he was worth the No. 3 selection in the draft. Now, he's the Sixth Man Award winner who had his latest Swiss-Army-Knife outing with 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists in Game 5.
Two years ago, center Kendrick Perkins was the missing piece -- literally -- for Boston in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, when the Lakers won it all while the big man was on crutches after tearing ligaments in his knee in Game 6. Now, after being acquired in a trade with the Celtics last year, he's the main reason Lakers center Andrew Bynum struggled mightily in this series and a key component of Oklahoma City's championship formula. Perkins had 11 rebounds Monday as the Thunder won the rebounding battle 51-35, including a 20-10 edge in the first quarter, after which they led 26-21.
Two years ago, point guard Derek Fisher was the Bryant sidekick who won five titles with his backcourt mate. Now, he's the 37-year-old Thunder backup point guard who has bonded with Westbrook and brought another experienced voice to what used to be the league's most inexperienced locker room.
Two years ago, Serge Ibaka, a 6-foot-10 forward whose arms and hops know no end, was just starting to emerge after being drafted 24th out of the Congo in 2008. Now, he's a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who led the league in blocks.
The list goes on, and so do the Thunder.
"It was kind of reversed, right?" Bryant said in his postgame news conference at the Chesapeake Energy Arena when asked to compare the two series. "We came in here a couple years ago, and we had played with each other in the same system for years. So we kind of knew the intricacies of our offense, and defensively what we wanted to do. So now it just flipped.
"They've been together for a long time in the same system. They know exactly what they want to do. They've really grown tremendously. I think Westbrook has improved, Durant's obviously improved. [Veteran shooting guard Thabo] Sefolosha, he didn't really shoot the ball that well tonight, but overall he's been an excellent shooter for them, which was different from when we faced them back in . Ibaka can shoot. Perkins is obviously a great addition. They've all made tremendous strides."
Bryant, as always, didn't go down without a fight. This was his most potent game of the playoffs, a 42-point outing on 18-of-33 shooting (with zero assists). It was just the third time in 12 games he shot 50 percent or higher in this postseason, hitting 43.9 percent overall and 28.3 percent from three-point range. He capped a season of being a medical marvel in fine form, the 33-year-old with 40 years' worth of mileage on his legs throwing down a number of dunks that continued to show why his offseason knee surgery in Germany was such a grand idea.
Pau Gasol was much more aggressive after the passive Game 4 in which Bryant called him out after for poor play, finishing with 14 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks. Bynum had what he told TNT was "the worst game I've probably played in the playoffs," tallying 10 points, four rebounds and no blocks. Combined with the putrid effort of the Lakers' bench (combined five points compared to Oklahoma City's 35), it wasn't nearly enough to counter the collective attack of a Thunder team that always seemed destined to get to this point.
"Experience is always important in this league," Brooks said. "You have to have good talent. You have to have good players. You have to have a team that competes and is self motivated. I have a group of guys who do that -- every single day."