NBA Playoffs, Lakers Vs. Thunder Game 1: Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum Key To Series

With the shot clock winding down in Game 6 against the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant launched a contested three-pointer in the final minute that sealed the deal in sudden death. If there's no off night and everyone shows up on the red carpet to later perform under the lights at Staples Center, then all it takes to win a crucial game is contributions from a trusty supporting cast and Bryant's clutch shots in the closing moments to paint the finishing touches. A couple of weeks into the postseason, and the Lakers are erratic and up and down, making life much harder on themselves. It's not pretty if you're a die-hard Lakers fan, holding your breath every time the Lakers tip off for a game of scares and dismay.

For once, though, Bryant had no choice but to trust in his teammates, when he was double-teamed much of the night. Therefore, it left players open for scoring opportunities, and sure enough, they came through, came to Bryant's aid. The captain, especially when much was at stake in a must-win situation, chose unselfishly not to shoot the ball and facilitated while he was trapped along the baseline, involving the rest of the players. He walked off the court, his final meeting with the Denver Nuggets and wore a slight smile that revealed a sigh of relief, after an exasperating 96-87 victory over the Nuggets in Game 7 finally came to an end. At first glance, the Lakers are an indeterminable riddle in all of sports, the one team that considers the season a waste if they fall short of capturing an NBA championship. The series shouldn't have lasted this long, and because it enabled the Nuggets to force a seventh game, fans locally were trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with the Lakers?

It was the most exaggerated question asked throughout such a frustrating, somewhat embarrassing series after the Lakers were demoralized in Game 6, refusing to fight and stop the bleeding in a round punctuated by a disastrous beatdown and Hollywood drama that issued forth from the selfishness and softness of two seven-footers. What's horrendous about this Lakers team is that no one ever knows which personality will ever show up, no one ever knows if the Lakers will deliver or sadly disappoint, as fans become ireful and boos rain down onto the court. It was a night, a crazy night for fans donning purple and gold attire, a night that outraged fans could have asked for a refund, and then return the next day protesting outside of Staples Center with paper bags over their heads. There was pressure on both Bynum and Gasol, but there was even more on Bynum, a second-scoring option for the Lakers.

The trip to Denver was perfectly enjoyable, but after the embarrassing loss on the road, it wasn't so pleasant on the flight back to Los Angeles. Caught in a web of criticisms here in LA, from the local media to typical bashers, they weren't looking to have two consecutive games with poor efforts entirely and exercised their size, toughness and guts to avoid further humiliation. It was a wake up call, encouragement when both Gasol and Bynum, for once, weren't lost on the court and had taken control to give the Lakers a chance, pulling it off and soaring back into contention. When the buzzer sounded, Gasol finished with a team-high 23 points, adding 17 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 blocks, putting his size advantage to use. Unlike the prior two games, it was a tall order for him to rebound, as well as for Bynum, who both had redemptive performances and were amazingly inspired after missing in action. It's the time of year when legends are born. And that, people, can very well be numerous players from the Lakers.

The good news is that Gasol and Bynum are not confused or dazed, wandering off to Disneyland or Lala Land. The bad news is that the Lakers, as a whole, have much work in order to beat Oklahoma City Thunder, Lakers' next opponent in the second round of the NBA playoffs, where a deeper and younger team will compete at the highest level to end a championship run for a core of older players. It wasn't the Lakers best game. It wasn't the greatest win. It wasn't the prettiest. For keeping track of statistics, however, Bynum had 16 points, a career playoff-high 18 rebounds and six blocked shots. It was days after he opened his mouth and made comments before Game 5, and said "close-out games are actually kind of easy." By keeping his mouth zipped, he was more focused and invigorated to see just how easy close-out games could be, allowing the game to speak for itself and not speaking for it.

Much has been made of an opinion from Magic Johnson that sparked a controversy when he said Lakers head coach Mike Brown, who has two years guaranteed left on his contract, would be fired had his team not won Game 7, a contest where he wasn't outcoached by George Karl. However, the fact of the matter is he's already under much turbulence for his bizarre philosophy to coaching. It's necessarily right to admittedly recognize, despite the lack of chemistry and oddly the way he coaches, that Brown has installed a new system with a defensive mental attitude. But moving forward, the Lakers will need the bigs, particularly with Oklahoma City.

The rest of the league might not want to play the Lakers, with Bynum and Gasol delivering and having big games. If he is not apathetic or selfish and has heart, then he might be one of the most high-octane, lanky players down low. If Bynum is not immature and has consistency to pose a threat inside that could stop players from driving the lane, then the Lakers might last a long time in these playoffs. There's no one to blame now, as the Lakers have survived a laborious, tiresome, maddening best-of-seven series. The problem for the Lakers is the lack of depth from their bench and even in the starting lineup, only if Gasol and Bynum have their off-nights -- oddly enough -- to reduce the team's chances of winning.

Without those two big men, alongside Bryant, the Lakers won't move on to the Western Conference Finals. It's notably right in front of our eyes that Oklahoma City has the most dangerous team in these playoffs, in which the Lakers can't afford any costly mistakes, like turnovers and inability to rebound the ball, giving opponents second-chance points. The star power is there for the Lakers, but can everyone stay consistent and live up to their role? And, seriously, Metta World Peace, who returned after serving a six-game suspension for viciously elbowing Oklahoma City guard James Harden in the regular season, scored 15 points and had four steals, containing the 6-foot-10 Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller, as well, blocking Miller's shot late in the final quarter.

The man, who also had extended the Lakers' lead late, when a 16-point lead disappeared quickly, was Steve Blake. It was a three-pointer he hit to give the Lakers a five-point lead, and he scored a playoff career-high 19 points. It wasn't surprising to see Kobe finish with a quiet 17 points on 17-for-16 shooting, while he still was overcoming the stomach flu and had been double teamed by the Nuggets to leave the Lakers with open shooters. Though the Lakers blew a large lead in the second half, maintaining it by controlling the tempo and physicality, Gasol was playing with emotion and confidence.

Midway in the fourth quarter, he tipped the ball into the basket aggressively to outdo JaVale McGee. And while Ty Lawson and Al Harrington had 24 points apiece, it wasn't good enough to hinder the Lakers from taking it over in the closing minutes. Having said that, the Lakers improved to 15-1 in a Game 7 at home, and never lost one at Staples Center, winning 11 consecutive since the 1969 NBA Finals.

It doesn't matter. What matters to the Lakers is winning a championship, if nothing else. The focus is now on the Thunder. It will be an uphill battle, a steep task for a team in need of help if Bynum and Gasol can't deliver all the time.

For more news and notes regarding Lakers basketball, be sure to read Silver Screen and Roll.

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