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The Empire Strikes Back

The mood changes fast around here, doesn't it? For the past three days Lakerdom has been mired somewhere between anxiety and outright despair, as we struggled with the appalling notion that the season could end in the month of April. We now know that the Lakers will play into May, at a minimum, and for the first time since the All-Star Break they appear ready to drive even further.

Seemingly out of nowhere tonight, they produced a masterpiece. Their 111 to 87 evisceration of the Oklahoma City Thunder was a near-perfect performance and a reminder of what this roster was built to do. It was an act of survival and a show of force. The Lakers don't play to their ceiling as often as a few other teams, but when they do get to rocking, the rest of the league must take notice and tremble.

The Youngest Team in the League® never once led tonight. They failed to score in their first 10 possessions, at which point the Lakers led, 10 to 1. From there the margin grew and grew like my rippling biceps. In a way that we haven't seen in months, the Lakers brought serious fire on defense, rattling Russell Westbrook and rendering the Thunder attack a disorganized mess. The Lakers offense, especially given the opponent and circumstances, was better than we've ever seen it. It felt like everyone on the court was seeing the right angles and making the correct decision with the ball. The beauty was in the details: the pump-fakes, the dump-offs in traffic, the volleyballing that led to offensive rebounds and second-chance points. We were all thinking the same thing, as I'm sure were Mitch Kupchak and Phil Jackson: damn, son, this is what we've been waiting for. This is how the Lakers can win another championship.

Two schematic innovations - one on offense, one on defense - powered this blowout, and for all the heat we've at times given Phil this season, he owned this one completely. On defense, he correctly realized he could no longer live with Derek Fisher "defending" Westbrook and handed that assignment to Kobe Bryant. Kobe rewarded the decision with a sparkling effort. The days off seemed to do wonders for his physical condition, as he looked more laterally mobile than at any time in the series. His long limbs, agility and unmatched instincts turned Westbrook back into a turnover-happy 21-year-old. The kid is the nerve center of the Thunder's offense, and knocking him off his game induced system-wide failure. The Thunder appeared not to know where their shots were coming from and reverted to the sloppiness they displayed in Games One and Two.

On offense, the Lakers approached the task of scoring with a new philosophical bent. There was no more tossing it around the perimeter, and then maybe tossing it into the post, and then maybe tossing it back out. Kobe put the ball on the floor early and often, sometimes dishing to Andrew Bynum for a series of dunks out of the Vintage Shaq highlight reel, sometimes working a devastating pick-and-roll with Pau Gasol. The Thunder looked at an utter loss. In the first half the Lakers made an incredible 71% of their two-point shots in the course of building a 21-point lead. The second half was extended garbagio time.

It was great to see the two big men assert their hegemony around the basket. It was even better to see Ron Artest come to life. Before the game he shaved off his lurid, Grey Poupon-hued dyejob, which by itself would've constituted a good night's work. But Ron went above and beyond the cosmetic by finally hitting some open shots. Fourteen points for the Ronster to go with five assists, zero turnovers and another fine job of harassing Kevin Durant. Also, he did this, which I'm still not totally sure actually happened:

Delish! Four stars, Mr. Artest. Our compliments to the chef.

And look who kind of, sort of, if-you-squint-hard-enough has a bench! Jordan Farmar poured in 14 points, Lamar Odom played with all kinds of energy, and Shannon Brown chipped in a couple steals and a block. This was the first game of the series in which the Laker reserves outperformed their OKC counterparts. (Don't get too hung up on the final boxscore. Most of James Harden's and Etan Thomas's production came when the game was long out of reach. Only the delightful-to-watch Serge Ibaka was a factor among the Thunder's second unit.)

In the Lakerverse it's a night of relief and rebirth. It's only, as they say, one game, and the OKC home crowd will not go quietly in Game Six, but for the first time since who-knows-when it feels like the Lakers might be onto something. At this moment at least, it doesn't feel like we're pulling for a dying imperial power in its last days. There's still life, and maybe a little badassery, in the purple and gold.

So what's everyone doing Friday night?











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