Not Kobe Bryant, center of the Laker universe. Nor Andrew Bynum, whose return played a key role in Sunday's victory. It wasn't even D.J. Mbenga, whose future is so bright, he's gotta wear shades. (Yes, technically speaking, the orange-tinted shades are more about protecting D.J.'s eye than a bright future, but if you think I'd turn down an easy Timbuk3 reference, frankly, you don't know me. While he's not officially cleared yet for action on Tuesday, Mbenga said he's feeling better and seemed in good spirits. When I mentioned how he and Jack Nicholson are now the coolest guys in Staples with their indoor sunglasses, D.J. busted out a big laugh.)
No, the name popping up most at practice was Russell Westbrook, the speedster point guard who did the most damage for OKC against the Lakers. In particular, the local product made hay in the lane off transition possessions, armed with a head of steam to penetrate the paint. Whenever a point guard with wheels gets hot, it's always on Derek Fisher's head, fair or not. But if it makes the pitchfork bearers feel better, the Lakers' resident sage also found Westbrook's prowess unacceptable. Asked if he could live with Westbrook's success if it meant more seven-for-24 shooting clips for Kevin Durant, Fish wasn't having it:
"We don't live with transition points and points in the paint. It's that simple. We need to make sure we're being efficient offensively. Having good offensive possessions. Making sure we're taking shots where the floor is balanced and we can get back. We can't turn the basketball over. Those are things that feed into what they like to do best and when I think Russell Westbrook is at his best. Those are things we can control. From there, if he's just making "good NBA player" plays, if he's making shots or doing things regardless of how the defense is playing him, he's just making a big play, those are the things we can live with."
Shannon Brown, who'll likely spend time checking Westbrook as well on Tuesday, shared sentiments similar to Fisher. Life can't be made any easier for the OKC point via the Lakers' own doing.
Should Fish, Shannon, Kobe, Jordan Farmar or whoever else gets the task of guarding Westbrook fail to keep up, the Laker bigs are the last line of defense. Andrew Bynum is well aware of this. Or at least, I assume so, because his explanation of the group D needed to stop Kevin Durant gave the impression of being up to speed on schemes in general.
"The big game plan is for Ron to lock and trail on Durant and try to force him to curl a little bit wider. The support, if he does get open, we do that fly by, contest, just try to get him to just catch and shoot. It was effective, so we're gonna go back to that.
Brian later asked Drew about his intentional shoulder blow to Jeff Green, a bit of contact my brother took as a playoff specific message. Bynum confirmed this hunch.
More from Andrew about the emotion of his return, Kobe's health and the win.
Lamar Odom discussed the prevalent "the Lakers are flipping the switch" storyline (I got the sense he's not a fan), Kobe's ability to walk a facilitator-scorer tightrope and Kevin Durant's ability to fill buckets. As for the NBA's leading scorer, LO wanted no part of any talk that could "rev up" Durant, that's not the same thing as wanting no part of Durant, period.
"I fear no man. I've been playing basketball competitively since I was eight or nine years old. I've seen a lot of great players. He's one of them. But as team, we've been to the championship. We've won and lost."
In other words, it'll take more than just a super-talented scoring machine to make the Lakers' collective boots shake.
Don't, however, mistake LO's confidence as a dismissal of Durant or his teammates. Odom played for a 2004 Miami Heat team whose first round of the playoffs came against a Hornets squad that, while limping into the playoffs, boasted considerably more experience. Odom and Caron Butler were playoff virgins, Rafer Alston was a streetball vagabond who'd barely dipped his toe in, and Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem were rookies. It led some to wonder if playoff inexperience might come back to bite the Heat in the ass, despite being much... wait for it... hotter heading into the dance.
I realize this isn't a perfect comparison. Miami players Eddie Jones and Brian Grant had mucho postseason knowledge, the Heat were actually the four-seed and the 2004 Hornets were nowhere close to as good as this year's defending champs. Still, there are enough similarities that OKC assistant coach Rex Kalamian (part of the Clippers staff when Odom there) actually told Odom the Thunder reminds him a bit of that Heat team. In particular, a makeup equal parts hard play and youthful energy. Either way, even if the media might deem a team not "ready" for the playoffs (certainly the prevailing sentiment towards the Thunder), what's really matters is Odom ain't buying it.
"If you're in the playoffs, you're ready. Point blank. You gotta be aware of that. If you're in the playoffs, you're ready."