Lake of Fire brings questions instead of revelations

Has there been a more dramatic five-game, best-of-seven series in recent memory?

There were so many bizarre storylines going on during the Thunder-Lakers series and all of them seemed to be independent of each other. Every event inside this series was mutually exclusive.

Aside from a demonstrative Game 1 performance from OKC and the series closeout quarter during the fourth period of Game 5, this was a tightly contested set of games. In fact, it was simultaneously one of the closest series of the playoffs and a complete domination from the Thunder whenever these two teams stood toe-to-toe. What the Lakers showed us in being able to hang onto the ledge for an absurd amount of time, the Thunder doubled as a wrecking ball of athleticism when the game was up for grabs. 

The Lakers had advantages in this series that they failed to grasp on a regular basis. The interior was bulkier, beefier, taller, and more skilled. Yet, they allowed the OKC frontcourt to push them around. Bynum post-ups became practice drills for Serge Ibaka help defense. Pau Gasol could never grab position on the block and when he finally did, the ball had long been reversed to the other side of the floor by impatient and rattled backcourt teammates. For the series, the Lakers held a rebounding advantage of just +2 in the five games, with most of that advantage being wiped away by a 51-35 effort in Game 5 by OKC.

Pau Gasol’s enigmatic playoff performances continued to confound. I’ve stuck up for Pau and discussed how misused he is, and I truly stand by everything I said about him. In theory, he’s an impossible cover for almost every player in this league. Give him the ball and let him operate and you’ll see the same spark of clairvoyance the jutted out from a point in the triangle two years ago. In reality, however, his usage was just useless.

Over the course of this series, Gasol had a usage rate of just 16.4%. It sounds terribly low considering he rocked a 22.1% usage rate for the season and a 23.5% usage rate for his career. But could you really trust him with more possessions and decisions in this series? His assist percentage from the regular season went from 17.0% in this series to 13.0%. The Lakers got torched on both ends when he was on the floor. The Lakers grossly misused him but he also grossly misused his own talents when given chances. How much longer could the Lakers afford to be patient with him when their playoff existence was on the line?

Andrew Bynum was another oversized riddle – a 1,000-piece puzzle to leave you concentrating on the mess in front of you and ultimately lead you to give up on the project altogether. Forget that he can’t beat a double team or that his team only had a +8 on points in the paint for the series, despite having all of the size and length advantage. Andrew Bynum couldn’t rebound. His 14.3% rebounding rate wasn’t just a cliff dive from his 18.7% mark on the season; in comparison it puts him with where guys like Ryan Anderson, Amare Stoudemire and (GASP!) Chris Bosh rebounded during the regular season.

He went from making people challenge what their idea of the modern big man should be to relentless ridicule for anybody who dared dub him the best big man in the league a month or two ago. Does he care? Will he bounce back? Is this a trend/problem going forward? Is he just in a poisoned environment? Does he poison the environment? These are questions he left us wondering, instead of us questioning how other big men can stop his prowess.

The Ron Artest (still not calling him that) angle of this series played out in dramatic form. His return to the scene of the elbow that dropped James Harden for a brief moment of time added angst and physicality to a series already riddled with agitation. There were constant feats of strength and airing of grievances between Artest and Harden to go along with the history of physical defense from Artest on Durant. Elbows flew; statements were made through fouls. In the end, Ron’s reputation and temper potentially ignited the collapse of a fragile Lakers’ psyche.

Maybe that’s overblowing the fireworks we saw at the end of the first half that led to technical fouls after a reputable flagrant call, but the vulnerability of a team against the wall shone through. It could have just been an isolated moment in time. It also could have been a sign of collapses to come. In the end, Ron’s hard fouls seemed like hazing to welcome the Thunder into a club. After the game, Ron’s perspective and clarity on everything we had just seen reminded us that he’s not raging bull from Pamplona, but a kindhearted warrior that continues to allow us to put quarters into the viewing booth.

And then there’s Kobe Bryant.

People often look at the critiques of Kobe and assume hatred is being thrust upon their beloved hero baller. The funny thing is the critiques couldn’t be more of a compliment for Bryant. It isn’t that we dislike him (okay, some people do); it’s that we like him so much that we hold him to unreal standards. Take a look at what he did throughout this series.

Kobe Bryant scored 158 points in five games (31.2) while shooting 42.6%. These are high usage numbers and yet, isn’t this the role that has been carved out for him? Isn’t this what he’s supposed to do? After not being able to get much going in the first two games of the series (20 points apiece in Game 1 and Game 2), Kobe adapted to the ebb and flow of the officiating and shot 35 free throws over the next two games. In a do-or-die-but-you-will-probably-die-later Game 5, he scored 42 points on 18/33 shooting.

He was almost everything we wanted him to be. He was the gunslinger, the lone ranger. He was the facilitator (15 assists from Games 2, 3, and 4). He was the sound byte at the podium and the guy doling out blame for the team’s follies. He was the fighter pilot accompanying Bill Pullman – incapable of going quietly into the night. He attacked the basket and showed his vampire knees still had some recoil. But he wasn’t the hero when we wanted him to be.

He fell in crunch time during two games, giving everybody what they wanted in the process. We never really wanted Kobe to succeed because the Thunder are our new toys. We wanted him to come up short to fulfill red ink covered narratives that he wasn’t, in fact, capable of closing. He was hero ball personified and validation by the truckload. And yet, he was just good enough to give his own followers hope. Had he come through in those two fourth quarters, the series would be reversed and the Thunder would be fighting for their playoff survival.

Some will look at what Kobe did or failed to do in this series and claim he’s no longer special, and yet it’s really hard to deny that seeing a guy with 50,000 minutes on his basketball-reference page still play at a level and style that boggles comprehension at times. It’s like seeing the two-decade old luxury car with hundreds of thousands of miles on the odometer still making cross-country road trips with the air conditioning never giving out and the gas mileage still finding ways to not make your wallet hemorrhage. Kobe is everything keeping the Lakers in the conversation of contending whilst being the reason they’ll never actually go through with it.

In the wreckage of another “wasted season” for Kobe, he left with words of inspiration and buoyancy by stating, “Come hell or high water, we’re going to be there again. It’s just something about the Lakers’ organization.” It’s another misfired shot in the clutch letting Lakers fans claim, “yeah but…” and at the same time it’s so perfectly Kobe preserved in a time capsule.

And what about the Thunder?

After everything that has gone wrong with the Lakers in this series, we’re left with the growth of a Thunder team that sparks the new age of basketball being thrust into the grownup world of veterans, assassinous coaching, and the continued road of knocking off those that have been here before. OKC now gets to try their hand at a perimeter attack that may even be better than the Thunder’s star-studded onslaught, while being anchored by the coolest, calmest and most collected big man of the last twenty years.

The perfect storm of collected potential and growing assets has survived another test as they march on for the NBA’s glory. Kevin Durant is still throwing flames and machismo-soaked daggers. James Harden is still slithering between the cracks of every defensive scheme that is designed to keep guards from entering through the velvet rope free throw line. And Russell Westbrook is still one of those lizards that can run across water, defying long-held beliefs and assumptions for how a man of his position and lot in life should carry himself. His positional restraints are rarely rules he’s willing to play by and only ideologies that he wants to challenge and evolve.

He is unapologetically great at what he does and leaves it up to Scott Brooks to figure out how to make the three-headed beast of the outside lead the lunch pail-toting frontcourt. Westbrook’s existence is one of little reasoning and asphyxiating athleticism that pushes the torque and shocks of the human body with each pull-up jumper.

As the Lakers’ journey ends in disappointment once again, we get to see the Thunder’s expedition just finally begin.

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