Early in the evening, the air heavy with predictions of doom for what might have been a Lakers dynasty, the media posse congregated in the visitors' locker room. Small as it was, the confines were quite hospitable, as the Oklahoma City Thunder, sudden darlings of the postseason, were as loose as a high school squad.
Makes sense, as most of the Oklahoma players, who comprise the NBA's youngest roster, aren't far removed from adolescence. Everyone knows about Kevin Durant, the youngest player ever to lead the league in scoring. But a more recent surprise -- at least for those of us who've been less than diligent with dispatches from the Sooner state -- has been Russell Westbrook, the 21-year-old point guard. Going into Tuesday night's game, he had only raised his playoff scoring average a mere seven points, to 22.
No player -- not even Durant -- seemed so well-suited to expose the Lakers' weaknesses. There's a lightness in his step, and such spring in his leap. Through four games, young legs made the Lakers look old. What's more, Westbrook had no awe of the defending champions, odd for a kid who grew up not far from here, in Long Beach.
"Were you a big Lakers fan?" I asked, wanting his thoughts on the last dynasty.
"Nah," he said. "They were a good team, but I wasn't a die-hard."
"So who'd you like?"
"I liked the Grizzlies and the Blazers."
"Rasheed Wallace and Pau Gasol."
"You weren't one of these big Kobe Bryant fans?"
"No," he said. "Not really."
Rasheed Wallace and Pau Gasol? For the record, Wallace last played for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2003. Ah, the good old days. If nothing else, those Blazers were an interesting assortment of young and fading talents: Wallace and Scottie Pippen and Bonzi Wells, Arvydas Sabonis, Zach Randolph. Besides, Westbrook was only 14. Less easily explained was his affection for the Memphis Grizzlies.
"I never met a Grizzlies fan," I said.
"Well, I wasn't really a Grizzlies fan," he said. "I just liked Pau Gasol."
That's not the kind of stuff you expect: a high-jumping guard out of Long Beach declaring for a Big Bird-looking Spanish center who played in the Deep South. But to watch Gasol Tuesday night was to know how prescient a kid Westbrook had been.
Gasol's line on the game was impressive enough: 25 points, 10 for 16 from the field, 11 rebounds, five assists. But more than that was the way he energized the offense. Nobody on the Lakers needs a good start like their still-young center, Andrew Bynum. And that's exactly what Gasol provided him: two assists for a pair of dunks in the first five minutes of play. Bynum finished with 21 points, 8 for 10 from the field, 11 rebounds.
"I was very pleased with the way Pau played tonight. I thought he moved the ball," said Phil Jackson. "He was able to hit Drew for some easy baskets."
And as long as they're playing at home, that's pretty much all the Lakers need. If the Thunder are ideally suited to expose the Lakers' weaknesses, then the converse is also true. Oklahoma can't match the Lakers' size and inside presence. Also, Gasol might be the best passing big man in the game. He sees all the interior angles.
"That was the key -- for us to be able to move the ball," said Westbrook's childhood idol. "We needed a game like this. We needed to make a statement."
Final score: 111-87. The Thunder shot a very vintage Grizzly-like: 37 percent, 26 percent in the first half.
Another "big factor," said Gasol, was Kobe Bryant checking Westbrook: "to be able to defend Westbrook and keep him out of the paint."
The decision was made after Monday's film session, when Bryant asked Jackson for the assignment. "I enjoy the challenge," said Bryant. "If we're going to be eliminated, then I want to go into the summer thinking that I could have done something about it...We had to make some adjustments. Ron (Artest) has been working extremely hard on Durant. Russell has just done such a great job getting into the paint. I think I'm a pretty good defensive player myself."
Bryant, who said he could still score 60 points a night, was 4 of 9 on the evening. But Westbrook, the crucial player in this series, was 4 of 13, 1 of 5 in the first quarter. Personally, I thought Westbrook was mugged on several of those early trips through the lane. The refs didn't make a call. But, hey, it's not called home-court advantage for nothing.
Still, as Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Bryant: "He won the game with his toughness. His line doesn't show his impact on the game."
When asked if Bryant's defense had bothered him, Westbrook said: "Not too much. I just hesitated in what I was doing."
Translation: if he wasn't a Bryant fan as a kid, he's become one now, as a man.