Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to be coming to Staples Center tonight. This was supposed to be the Lakers’ first game as Mike Brown’s Lakers. This was supposed to be a measure of how well Kobe had integrated to the new system. This was supposed to be Derek Fisher’s night of recognition for being the best head of the players’ association and saving professional basketball’s season.
There was a lot of supposed to, but the NBA lockout has turned those anticipations into anxieties fearing the encore of last season’s rich drama would be lost. And with all the David Stern optimistic reassurances about salvaging the 2011-2012 NBA seasons, I feel more lied to than Kris Humphries when Kim Kardashian gave her wedding vows (Sorry, I had to throw one in there).
Since Staples is vacant and TNT is probably showing re-runs of “The Closer,” I can’t watch Lakers-Thunder tonight, but it doesn’t stop my imagination from running wild with what could have been. With a marquee match-up like what tonight should have been, I want to humor Laker fans (and myself) with an imaginative recap of the game tonight using a double reality or “unreality” since, let me check TV guide, yep the game still is definitely not happening.
So in a “Sliding Doors” type creation, I’m going to give you two scenarios of how the matchup would have gone if the lockout had been lifted and NBA was freed from its jail of millionaires vs. billionaires squabble.
Scenario 1 (The more likely, but irrational) - Despite a healthy and otherwise productive training season, Kobe Bryant has still refused to comply with the Mike Brown way, begrudgingly wishing his plight and gambit to get Brian Shaw to be the puppet head coach so he could actually run the team had worked. Let’s assume in his stubbornness he has not really learned the offense, or defense for that matter, and is relying on his talents and basketball IQ to speak for him tonight against Oklahoma City.
Scenario 2 (The less likely, but hell, we can always pretend) - Kobe Bryant has seen the threat of the lockout as a sign his time to win more championships is running out. He fears if he doesn’t comply with the new system now, he risks spending his last few seasons a five-seed or worse playoff team diminishing his winning reputation and increasing the odds for more sweeps like that Dallas incident a season ago. He’s all about rings and his time to add to those is running short, so like his last poker hand, he’s all in.
Clarification: All the other players in these scenarios have accepted being under the tutelage of Mike Brown and are motivated to try something new and see if it can get them a ring, new deal or at the very least keep their profession. If you look at it through their eyes, they could be jobless playing street ball or getting a mediocre job if the lockout was still in place. Scared by the thought, they count their blessings, consider themselves lucky and fall in line to whatever the new coach asks (note: for the sake of avoiding complications, all players pre-lock out are still on their respective teams, including Shannon Brown with the Lakers).
Pre-Game: Showing that things have really changed, for the first time in three years, NBA opening night at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles didn’t start with a Lakers’ ring ceremony. Maybe because of this or the fact that Phil Jackson is gone and these Los Angeles Lakers are a new regime and thus, starting a new path to success, the atmosphere has a post-Halloween hangover feel to it. The best example of this comes with the announcement of Mike Brown as head coach by the familiar voice of public announcer Lawrence Tanter received by a mingling of groans and scattered cheers. Feels weird not seeing that high boosted chair amongst the regular chairs on the Lakers’ bench (maybe in this imagination Mike Brown’s chair can be rounder, but for now, we’ll leave unnecessary specifics out). With that, laughs and applause as the announcement of “Dancing with Stars” failure, Metta World Peace echoes throughout the stadium. The excitable roars for the starting five are familiar contrasted with boos and heckling for a Thunder squad who greatly humbled LA last year and a special, in unison jeer for Kevin Durant. Lamar Odom slides into the starting line-up after Andrew Bynum’s deserved ten-game suspension starts tonight (we all remember his thuggish clotheslining of J.J. Barrea in the playoffs last year) which shouldn’t hurt the Lakers because he never plays at the beginning of the season anyway.
The sweat already starts to trickle off Mike Brown’s forehead, Pau Gasol eagerly blows air into his cupped hands and Kobe beams, swinging his arms as he hugs Durant as Steve Javee, the referee, carries the ball to midcourt in what is sure a sight for sore eyes after an exasperating lockout. The Lakers season is ready to begin.
The First-Quarter (Scenario 1): The opening of this game is much like any game you see at the start of the season: sloppy play and missed defensive assignments are magnetized by the lack of conditioning and preparation thanks to a shortened offseason on behalf of the lockout. Oddly enough in the opening five minutes, the Lakers are ahead with spark from both Pau Gasol, coming off a successful offseason playing for Spain, and Lamar Odom, energized by the ten bags of candy he split with Khloe Kardashian (back off, her sister just got divorced) the night before on Halloween. Kevin Durant has produced almost the entire Thunder offense and Kendrick Perkins has grabbed almost every rebound. The difference is Kobe hasn’t taken a shot and has passed up several open-looks that have led to five Shannon Brown rim-grazers. After not scoring in consecutive possessions and no offensive help from Kobe, the Lakers Mike Brown calls his third and final time-out of the half at the 4-minute mark in the first, sweating profusely and begging Kobe to run the play “LeBron123” which is just giving the ball to Kobe at the top of the key so he can either drive, get fouled or turn the ball over. The quarter ends with a KD half-court shot which splashes through the net to give him 20 first-quarter points. Kobe with none. Looks like it’ll be a long night.
L.A. Lakers 25 - O.K.C. Thunder 32
The First-Quarter (Scenario 2): The opening of this game is much like any game you see at the start of the season: sloppy and yadda-yadda-yadda. The difference is there is more communication and cooperation on offense with Kobe trying to make Kevin Durant’s night harder. In the opening five minutes, Kobe has shot the ball five-times and has a respectable 6 points and 3 assists, holding Durant to 9 and 1. Around the three-minute mark Kobe, being guarded by James Harden at the top of the key, imitates his headlining Drew League buzzer beater by pulling up and swishing a jump-shot at the elbow with Harden’s hand in his face. He smirks, wags his finger, seemingly enjoying himself. With the bulk of the offense being facilitated by Kobe (10 first-quarter points), the Lakers manage to efficiently run the Mike Brown offense and finish the quarter on a 10-1 run and also, cool down Durant to a manageable 11 first-quarter points.
L.A. Lakers 27 - O.K.C. Thunder 24
Between the First and Second-Quarter: A breaking-news story flashes on the megatron at Staples: While at home watching the game, Andrew Bynum fractured, sprained and dislocated both knees while getting a drink from the fridge and carrying a playboy bunny on his shoulders during commercials, it is reported he will miss the first three to four months of the NBA season and return to play when he wants to, to which the crowd, not surprised, only sighs.
The Second-Quarter (Scenario 1) 25-32: Down by 7, the Lakers come out in classic Laker-mode when they are behind: firing threes. Consecutive misses by reserves, Matt Barnes and Trey Johnson (who?), the Thunder build up a 12-point lead thanks to aggressive play from Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook to which Mike Brown tries to call a time-out and gets a technical because he ran out of them in the first-quarter. Beaming at Kobe who is on the bench and still has no shot-attempts, the Lakers get bailed out by a TV time-out. In what seems to be an ominous start to the season for the obviously inferior LA squad, Brown preaches defense because his only offensive tool isn’t working. A Derek Fisher charge and Odom three-point-play later and the Lakers are back to a single-digit deficit. At this point, all five starters have scored for the Thunder, who seem to be playing their game well this first-half. Kobe comes into the game just under the six-minute mark and grabs an entry pass short corner and makes a lay-up, the crowd-cheering is relieved their most popular player isn’t too old and worn down to score. Despite a positive sign from Kobe, the first-half ends on a 9-3 OKC mini-run, triggered by two Kevin Durant threes in the final minute.
L.A. Lakers 44 - O.K.C. Thunder 59
The Second-Quarter (Scenario 2) 27-24: The Lakers enjoying a lead, though slim, rest their starters and send out an unorthodox set of reserves in Trey Johnson (come on, he played eight games last year), Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, Derrick Caracter and Luke Walton (is it bad I can’t tell if they’re saying “Luuuuke” or “boooo” anymore?). Almost immediately, the Lakers lead vanishes at the hands of a much superior Thunder bench led by Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison. Flummoxed, Mike Brown calls a time-out and sends Lamar and Pau out for more minutes than they should have. Midway through the quarter, Kobe comes in and the offense becomes a little more fluid with inside-out passing and quick-looks. Durant goes on a scoring-binge, a personal 7-0 run. The quarter ends with two errant passes by Kobe and the Lakers look human once again. Just what we expected them to be in their first game under the M.B. system.
L.A. Lakers 48 - O.K.C. Thunder 56
Half-Time (Scenario 1): With the media wondering if Mike Brown was the right hire and appeal to Kobe, the locker room is eerily quiet. The coach scrawls a couple of words and plays on the board and emphasizes defense, promoting a scheme against Kevin Durant. Kobe ties his shoes and pretends he is unaware of his 1-3 shooting-night so far. D-Fish and Pau tell the team to step up and the Lakers huddle up, Kobe on the outside, and break.
Half-Time (Scenario 2): Though they trail, the Lakers can take a lot of positive to the locker room knowing they are still in the game. Kobe gathers his team around and stresses help defense when guarding the ball and spacing on offense. The rapport and leadership Kobe shows with his teammates gives the team a feeling of hope and determination as they head out of the tunnel poised for the second-half.
The Third-Quarter (Scenario 1) 44-59: It’s obvious the mentality of the Lakers coming out of the locker room is to be aggressive, but Kevin Durant comes out firing, hitting three-shots and expanding his point total to 35. Metta World Peace, “Ochocinco”-like, after shooting four air-balls in a row, makes a kick-out three and flexes his bicep. As the Thunder lead by 21 and start pulling away, it’s starting to look like game 7 of the World Series with Thunder coach Scotty Brooks sitting on the sideline smirking. Mike Brown calls a time-out, and then in a bold move calls out Kobe Bryant as only he can, telling him to “shoot the damn thing.” Almost sarcastically, Kobe comes out and shoots the next four possessions, making three baskets. With the crowd in a frenzy, Pau begins to heat up and the Lakers deficit is down to 13. Enigmatically, Russell Westbrook turns the ball over and Shannon Brown gives the crowd a vaulting, acrobatic slam-dunk to the chagrin of Brooks who himself calls a time-out. With the lead down to single-digits, the ball is in the hands of playmaker Kevin Durant who shoots a fade-away air ball. With the lead trimmed to a manageable seven, the Lakers go into the final quarter with confidence.
L.A. Lakers 72 - O.K.C. Thunder 79
The Third-Quarter (Scenario 2) 48-56: The Lakers start the third-quarter with the starters on a hot streak. Derek Fisher hits two three pointers off of Kobe Bryant assists (7-assists for the game) and take the lead. The pace is quickened as Russell Westbrook tries to speed up the tempo to tire the timeworn legs of the Lakers. However, Kobe steals the ball and dunks ardently with a finishing, classic bottom jaw protrusion expression we’ve all come to love and hate. With the score even and Kendrick Perkins missing four free-throws in a row, the reserves somehow led by Matt Barnes who scores five-straight points become inspired to play defense against the superior bench-players of the Thunder. Play ends with the Lakers on a 5-1 min-run and looking like the new system may favor them in the long run.
L.A. Lakers 82 - O.K.C. Thunder 78
Between the Third and Fourth-Quarters: Notable people caught on the Lakers’ “Kiss Cam”: Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon, Flea and Anthony Kiedis, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lauren Conrad (oops!) and Mikhail Prokhorov and Kim Kardashian (yikes!).
The Fourth-Quarter (Scenario 1) 72-79: Down, but not out, the Lakers look to make a stand in the fourth-quarter building on the solid play from their role players at the end of the third quarter. Russell Westbrook takes the ball from one side of the court to the other for a lay-up ominously as the crowd is quieted. Kobe gets the ball at the key and passes up an open look for Lamar who misses but tips to himself a handful of times before Nazr Mohammad comes up with the ball for Oklahoma City. In a state of frustration, Kobe Bryant gets a technical for rolling his eyes at the referee for not calling a foul on the last possession. By doubling the lead and with a 14 point advantage, the Thunder never look back as Kevin Durant buries a three to end any chance the Lakers had of rescuing their opening game. Kobe sits for the last time, still upset but not vociferating profanity this time, is soon seen calmly texting as the game expires in a disappointing fashion. He finishes with 11 points and two assists, while Durant finishes one shy of fifty with 49 and 11.
Final (Scenario 1): L.A. Lakers 89 - O.K.C. Thunder 107
The Fourth-Quarter (Scenario 2) 82-78: Going into the fourth-quarter with a lead is something the Lakers have been known to capitalize on. Thus, at the start of the final quarter L.A. seemed ready to close it out. Taking a break are the Lakers starters who watch their reserves at first expand on the lead thanks to Trey Johnson (even though its imaginary, don’t count him out, it could happen) and his five-points. However, Kevin Durant checks into the game, gets fouled and makes his 17th free-throw in a row. Battling back and forth, now with both teams’ starters on the floor, the Lakers begin to look sluggish and winded from the short offseason, whereas Durant and his squad look fresh. From there, Russell Westbrook makes an improbably athletic lay-up to bring the game within two with one-minute to go. Mike Brown calls a time-out and tells Kobe to take the ball at the top of the key, “it’s time to call LeBron123.” Obeying the orders, Kobe grabs the ball at the top of the key begins to drive, but quickly spins, dishes to Pau who, seemingly fouled, in a signature Pau-move flops and turns over the ball to Kevin Durant who makes a dunk on the opposite side of the court. Another time-out, another Mike Brown call for the same play. Now down one, Kobe gets the ball and attempts the same buzzer-beater he beat James Harden in the Drew League with, but this time with the longer Durant guarding him, the ball hits the back rim giving the Thunder the win. Disheveled but not hopeless, the Lakers walk out of Staples with a loss, but at the very least knowing they have a long season ahead of them to improve on some positives they can draw from tonight’s game.
Final (Scenario 2): L.A. Lakers 102 - O.K.C. Thunder 103
Post-Game: Although both scenarios resulted in losses, it’s clear which one Laker fans would prefer. Nobody’s exactly sure what outcome of game or atmosphere Mike Brown’s system will induce. What we do know is Kobe Bryant and his attitude are the key-components in giving the new-look Lakers a chance to work. Without his blessing and effort, the success of the last half-decade will be history leaving Laker fans reviling the new head coach. Look for drama if this 2011-2012 NBA season ever gets underway. If not, thankfully the NFL figured out their lockout situation, we can at least watch that. For now, Kevin Durant, can not only enjoy street-league games, but flag football games, too (see video below).
Which will get figured out first the Tim Tebow experiment in Denver or the NBA lockout? Here’s to praying for the lockout.
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