This was the Thunder winning. Not the Lakers losing.
The Thunder played as the experience-heavy ones, the ones that knew how to play with composure on the biggest nights of the season. Oklahoma City’s stars didn’t have to be prodded to play hard before it was too late. They played sleek and scrappy. The Thunder became the Lakers.
That may get lost outside of the state in the next few days. While the newly eliminated Lakers are dissected nationally for their failures, the Thunder will go silent while prepping for Sunday in San Antonio and the start of the Western Conference finals.
But the Thunder made this happen.
As the red and blue streamers dropped from the sky around the fallen Lakers faces, it felt like more than the end of a series.
With “Takin’ Care of Business” thumping and thousands rhythmically clapping around the staggering Lakers bodies, it felt like more than the end of a season.
What happened here on a strange and sad Monday night felt like the end of an era.
Kobe Bryant’s window to win a sixth championship in Los Angeles may have officially shut, and who knows whether he will want to stick around to spend his final years pressing his nose against the glass?
Russell Westbrook no longer could contain his emotions.
So he stopped trying.
When the time was right, he let loose, celebrating unlike we’ve ever seen him, jubilantly yet violently swinging his arms, one at a time, through the blissful air inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
There couldn’t have been a more appropriate celebration.
Without Perk, Serge and Nick, there’s a good chance this series would be headed back to Los Angeles for another game. There’s a good chance the Lakers would’ve had new life. There’s a good chance this series would’ve gone seven games.
Instead, it’s so LA-LA-long Lakers.
“I thought they were the big three,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Perk, Serge and Nick. “The Lakers’ bigs are as good of bigs as there are in basketball. They’re skilled. They’re big. They’re long. They block shots.”
And Monday night, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol didn’t determine the outcome of this game or this series.
Bryant battled through this season the only way he knew how. A shortened lockout season, a new system being built on the fly, a roster hit by moves aiming for a new financial reality, and a new coaching staff that didn’t always flow or connect with its players. And he did what he knows how to do. He scored. He threw in 40-point night after 40-point night, and while he was rarely efficient, it was what he felt the team needed.
It brought all the same arguments about Bryant. How can he not be the best player in the league if he’s dropping 40 points night after night? How can he continue to gun this way with two 7-footers on his team? How can he throw his team that far out of rhythm? How can his team continue to fail him when he leads by example this way? It is the never-ending debate of Bryant and his legacy, wrapped in the shine of five championship rings and miles of controversy.
The great players in this league divide fans, divide media, divide the basketball world. Kobe Bryant did it as much as ever in his 16th NBA season.
He did it his way. The only way he knows how. The Kobe way.