NBA's Western semifinal something special
By FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency
|James Harden, of the Oklahoma City Thunder, lies on the floor after being elbowed by Metta World Peace, of the Los Angeles Lakers, at Staples Center on April 22, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (GETTY)
There are more subplots than stars, so much more at stake and so much that could potentially be lost as the NBA's post-season prepares for its most compelling backdrop.
About the only missing dimension is a title, but the winner is assured of moving closer to a championship.
Welcome to Thunder versus Lakers, Metta World Peace versus Oklahoma City's rabid fan base, which will get its first shot at the player once known as Ron Artest since MWP's elbow to James Harden, and Kevin Durant versus Kobe Bryant, who emerged as the NBA's leading scorers.
When Game 1 in the best-of-seven Western semifinal tips off Monday night in OKC, the atmosphere will be electric, the venom palpable, helping create a backdrop that'll be as raw as anything the NBA has seen in recent history.
At the centre of this cauldron will be Metta World Peace, whose elbow to Harden, the NBA's Sixth Man Award recipient, in the penultimate game of the regular season earned MWP a seven-game suspension, a period of inactivity that would end in Game 7 of L.A.'s opening-round series versus Denver.
In the immediate aftermath of L.A.'s 96-87 win over the Nuggets, a win that would not have been produced had MWP not stepped up, all the talk was the reception that would await the Lakers in OKC.
Bryant, who shockingly struggled from the field, but predictably drained a clutch three-pointer to seal the deal, succinctly summed up in one word the reaction that is coming from the Thunder faithful.
"Intense,'' Bryant said. "The crowd's obviously going to have a field day with that.
"And I'm sure their players will generate some type of energy from it. For us, we've just got to keep our poise and do what we do."
If momentum means anything, then clearly the Lakers have the edge over a well-rested Thunder team that hasn't played a game since completing its opening-round sweep over Dallas on May 5.
If vengeance has any bearing, then the Thunder finds itself in the driver's seat.
If atonement comes into play, then expect Derek Fisher to make a late-game shot to beat his former team, a team the veteran guard once helped lead to five titles riding shotgun alongside Bryant.
Lest anyone forget, the Thunder served notice of its promising future two years ago when OKC played the Lakers in the opening round, giving the playoff-tested Lakers all they could handle before expiring in six games.
L.A. would go on to win the NBA's championship, a title somewhat tainted when Kendrick Perkins, then with Boston and now with OKC, unable to play in the decisive Game 7 after the big man tore his knee in Game 6.
From a purely basketball perspective, Thunder/Lakers provides an incredible matchup in styles.
In a nutshell, it comes down to size versus speed, half court versus full court, so different are the teams that it could potentially be remembered as the most intriguing of this year's playoff run.
For those pining for big-time shot-making basketball, no series will match a potential Thunder/Heat, but that scenario can only play out if OKC and Miami happen to meet for all of basketball's marbles.
For now, fans will gladly settle for Thunder/Lakers, a series that will involve a back-to-back set as the first two games get played over the course of six nights.
If OKC can match L.A.'s frontline, there's too much offence for the Lakers to handle, even if MWP emerges as a stopper.
L.A.'s depth remains a huge concern, but if Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are dominating the paint and Bryant does what he normally produces on this type of stage, Lakers will win.
But home court is so huge in playoff basketball and the home crowd in OKC smells blood.