Up first: Oklahoma City Thunder (playoff preview of LA/OKC)

LA are to battle it out with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, and it should be pretty entertaining.  Kevin Durant, fresh off becoming the youngest ever player to win the scoring title, will match his skills against Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson.
The run to this match-up couldn’t have been more different.  We’ve all seen OKC come on fast and strong, hitting their stride a full few years before anyone expected, and this has largely been because of the rapid strides Kevin Durant has made.  Coach Scott Brooks is one of the leading candidates for Coach of the Year – and it’s been fantastic trip for OKC.
Sure, there have been more than a few losses over the last two weeks, but each has been a tightly fought-out contest.  The Thunder have been the very picture of a team excited to find themselves on the verge of playing in the post season.
On the other hand, LA have coasted into the playoffs with their fair share of losses too – some of them close, some of them not even remotely.  At times, LA have looked languid, lackadaisical, lazy.  Completely indifferent to the results.
So what’s going to happen when a team that’s young, energized and full of vigour and excitement meet a team that of late has looked like they don’t really want to be there?
Well, unfortunately for the Thunder, the ride ends here.
LA will come out and match OKC for energy and enthusiasm, for their title defense starts here.  Could LA have had a better run into the playoffs?  Sure.  But at the point where catching Cleveland for the NBA’s bestceased to be a realistic option, then LA became far more focused on being well-rested and injury-free come playoffs. It’s tough on a fan-base expecting excellence, but I’ll take that if it means that a better chance of getting to the Finals.
For me, the biggest indication about this was the end of the game against Portland.  Critics and those desiring drama saw a team in ruins, but if you look with a discerning eye, you’d note the ridiculous: Phil setting up a play for Gasol to hit the 3 to win the game?  The thespians of the NBA saw Phil thumbing his nose at Kobe and co.  I saw Phil thumbing his nose at the NBA.
There will be tough match-ups, obviously Kevin Durant’s going to get his points – and the Lakers need to find a way to stop Westbrook, because I don’t believe that Fish can.  Shannon Brown maybe?
But likewise, OKC are going to have a lot of difficulty with LA’s basketball doyen, Kobe Bryant.  And do they have anyone who’s going to be able to match-up with the Laker big brigade?  No, I get it: they have bigs, but not like the LA group of Gasol/Odom/Bynum (yes, I think Drew’ll be back).  And whilst Kevin Durant will score, Ron Artest’s entire reason for being is going to be to make sure that Durant gets to know him up-close-and-personal.  And I don’t believe there’s another defender in the NBA universe that can get in an opponent’s face like Ron Artest can.
Expect the Lakers to be an entirely different team to what you’ve watched for the past 3 weeks.
Lastly: Phil Jackson.  Scottie Brooks is a damn fine coach, and a leading candidate for the Coach of the Year award… but Philip Douglas Jackson he’s not.
Speaking of Phil Jackson, he’s already entered into the mind-games, picking up on Kevin Garnett’s assertion that the referees treat Kevin Durant like “Michael <expletive deleted> Jordan…”, Phil asserting:
“As far as the calls that he gets on the floor, I think a lot of the referees are treating him like a superstar; he gets to the line easy and often…”
Durant responded very quickly, stating that he felt “disrespected”.  I’m surprised that KD let Phil get into his head so quickly.  Sure, fine: he stated not long afer that the zen master isn’t on his mind… but if that’s so, just shrug it off with a “Phil can think what he likes”.
But nuh-uh.
Realistically, this isn’t the only reason that Phi-Jax made the remark.  As much as anything it serves as notice to the referees of the season.
Mind games.
And Phil’s a master at them.
LA in 5.

Around the web on the series…