NEW YORK — A casual acquaintance e-mailed me a couple days ago to complain about the Eastern Conference playoff mismatches, as if I had something to do with the short supply of competition.
“I was forced to watch hockey and baseball last night to keep myself awake,” harrumphed the grumpy middle-aged man. “Finally, I just shut the TV off and played chess with my 6-year-old daughter. Much more exciting.
“Wake me when LeBron and Kobe kiss at midcourt. They’re surrounded by teammates aren’t they, Mr. Stern?
“Even if LeBron and Kobe do meet, they’ll probably start every game at 9, way past my bed time.”
My response to Lou essentially was, “You should have taped Game 2 of the Lakers-Thunder series. Do yourself a favor and tape Game 3. For the youngest team in the league, Oklahoma City is way ahead of its time in terms of all-out defensive pursuit. Any shooter that strays across the border and strafes the basket is gang-banged. Kevin Durant may lead the league in scoring but he and Russell Westbrook aren’t hung up on themselves. There’s plenty of time for that after they lead their team a round or two into the playoff pressure cooker.”
As a rule, that must begin with first winning a game.
Thursday night that began for real with a 101-96 passion play before a crowd that was so loud, Nick Collison pertinently noted, it almost sounded quiet.
“They won it,” Kobe recognized, deflecting a question suggesting the Lakers had let one slip away because they had the Thunder down from the jump (10 straight points) and dizzy for most of the first quarter.
“There are things they did that we’ll have to figure out how to stop.”
Or slow down, at the very least.
Who would have imagined the growth plate of the NBA’s youngest team could open so fast and wide — against the defending champs, no less, whose monarch admittedly was taken by surprise when Durant jumped his bones?
In Game 2, the Thunder’s normal security force couldn’t control Kobe. A 15-point outburst in the fourth quarter netted him 39 for the game. The Lakers were lucky to win by three, nonetheless.
A timeout for some historical perspective:
It has gone largely unnoticed that Kobe next year will elevate into the upper echelon of NBA scoring. Currently at 25,790 career points, he is a 2,465-point-season away from becoming No. 5 on the all-time list.
At 31, he’s set to pass John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, and Shaq — though O’Neal wants to keep on playing.
That would leave Kobe behind Wilt, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
If Kobe’s body holds up and he averages a mere 17.5 points per game for nine more seasons (his plans are to play until 40) he will surpass Kareem (38,387) as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
This is who Durant chose to guard last night during the insanely savage fourth quarter.
Of course, Durant wanted a piece of Kobe, whose 24 points, by the way, broke Jerry West’s playoff franchise scoring record.
What 21-year-old worth his superstar status wouldn’t?
Of course, his commanding officer gave him his blessing.
Why wouldn’t Scott Brooks OK the resistance move . . . unusual as it may have seemed?
Outsiders may be unaware, but Durant’s defensive dexterity is well established within the league.
Of course, Durant had some spare energy to put to good use.
What else was he doing at that point, anyway, besides slinging shots (29 points), raking rebounds (19) and abetting (four assists) teammates?
Remember that drill when your coach would hold up a broom and you would have to shoot over it?
That’s what the 198-cm Kobe looked like trying to deal with Durant’s 13-cm height advantage and far-reaching tentacles.
Before screeching to the hoop for a late layup that closed the gap to 98-96, Kobe had missed eight of nine shots in the fourth, including a sideline jumper at the 5:24 mark that Durant snuffed and caught, Thunder up 86-82.
For those interested in accuracy, some empties occurred before Durant appointed himself Kobe’s insecurity blanket.
Still, I can’t remember ever seeing Kobe look to pass so often (eight overall assists; three in the quarter) on account of being unable to get a shot he wanted.
“He did a great job,” Kobe stated at the post-game news conference, not appearing the least bit insincere.
How good is Durant, who combined with Westbrook for 22 of the Thunder’s final 23 points?
Never before had I heard Kobe unequivocally compliment an opponent who had gotten the best of him and the Lakers.
Peter Vecsey covers the NBAfor the New York Post.