Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers, warts and all, will take on the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center. There's been a lot of talk over the past few days (admittedly encouraged and often originated by yours truly) about the potentially dire situation the Lakers find themselves in; the coach is benching the team's best players in key moments, those players are acting in ways that justify the benchings, and so on. At this point, I think we've all had enough of the drama, both from the team itself, and from the reactions of the fans to the team.
All that said, the symbolism of tonight's contest is just too delicious to ignore. The Lakers are very much a team for the present; whatever they can achieve will be done right now, this year and next, before they attempt to rebuild in an atmosphere (where spending must be controlled under the new CBA) that will be completely foreign to them. There is no long term future, and past greatness bears down on them constantly. So, as the Lakers find themselves in a particularly dark corner of the struggle, it is fitting that they go up against a team that is the future of the NBA. And it is insanely fitting that said team includes a symbol of the Lakers' past.
The Oklahoma City Thunder ... they are good. Really, really good. Anybody who pays even the remotest of attention has expected this team to be good for a while, but with a team as young as they are (all four of their core players are still under the age of 23), you never know how quickly the progression will be achieved. Well, if their regular season performance is any indication, the progression for this team will be rapid. The Thunder trail only the Bulls in the wins and losses category. Their offense is the best in the league by a huge margin. And considering their age, this is only the beginning, although, as was touched on in today's Q&A with Welcome To Loud City, the beginning and the end aren't as far apart as they should be, as the new CBA virtually guarantees the Thunder will be unable to keep all their young stars. Still, there is no doubt that OKC will be at start of any conversation involving successful NBA teams over the next 5-10 years. They are the future ... and they bring with them the past.
Derek Fisher gets welcomed back home tonight under uncomfortable circumstances, but we should all be happy for the discomfort. Fish deserves, if nothing else, the lengthy serenade he will no doubt receive from the Staples Center faithful tonight. The NBA is a business, and players must know and be prepared for the business side of things. But the player-fan relationship is hardly professional, and Derek Fisher deserves to know, so soon after he was cast aside, that we, the fans, continue to hold a very special place for him in our hearts. If I were lucky enough to attend tonight's contest, I'd be starting the standing ovation during the layup lines.
On a night like this, basketball kind of takes a back seat. How will the Lakers, specifically Andrew Bynum, bounce back from the inanity of the past 48 hours? How will the team, especially Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, deal with the emotion of seeing Fisher playing for their chief Western Conference rival? What level of revenge will Derek Fisher seek to exact? These are the questions we care about tonight, even if they have little to do with basketball. When it comes to the basketball side, the Thunder are an excellent team. The Lakers have been an excellent team at home all season long, but it's been weeks since we've seen a performance out of the Lakers thorough enough to defeat OKC. Then again, the last time we saw such a performance was the last time the Lakers played a team of their caliber, when LA defeated the Heat nearly a month ago.
Will Kevin Durant continue to struggle against the strength of Ron Artest? Will Ramon Sessions fare any better against Russell Westbrook than old man Fish ever did? Can the Lakers keep the Thunder at a pace that agrees with their tired old legs? Can Andrew Bynum dominate against a man very much his own size? Will he follow through on his threats to continue to act a fool?
Honestly, I don't really care. Win or lose, drama-free or reality TV, the only thing that matters to me tonight is getting to see the smile on Derek's face when he checks in to a game at Staples Center and hears the cavalcade of applause just one last time.