It's Kobe vs. K.D., it's Metta World Peace against James Harden, and it's probably the most anticipated NBA playoff matchup this season as the Los Angeles Lakers get set to square off with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals.
The NBA's two top scorers and two most notable antagonists got here in opposite fashion with Kevin Durant, Harden and the Thunder needing just four games to oust the reigning NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, while Kobe Bryant, World Peace and Lakers survived a seven-game war with the younger and deeper Denver Nuggets.
A lot of observers think you have to make a deep run in the NBA playoffs before you grab for the brass ring. A young, talented Oklahoma City team took that step in 2010-11 before losing in the Western Conference finals to Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. The Thunder were more than competitive in that series but ultimately fell to the closing skills of the 7-foot Nowitzki.
This time around the Thunder were awarded an opportunity to exorcise some demons in a rematch with Dallas in the first round. Now mind you this was a different Mavs bunch, missing the interior defensive presence of Tyson Chandler, who fled to New York, as well as couple of Rick Carlisle's glue guys in J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson.
Still it was a tough test and the Thunder were more than up to the task, sweeping the Mavericks out of the playoffs with four straight wins. After taking the first two contests in the Sooner State by just four points combined, OKC arrived in North Texas to take a 95-79 route before finally finishing things off with a huge 103-97 comeback win in Game 4.
Sixth Man of the Year Harden scored 15 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter of the clincher as the Thunder completed the first series sweep of the defending champions in the first round since the Miami Heat were dismissed in 2007.
On the other hand, it took seven games and a series of trials but the Lakers finally put away Denver on Saturday.
On the cusp of elimination, the sixth-seeded Nuggets stormed back with two straight wins and held a lead in the fourth quarter on Saturday, but the Lakers persevered, getting 23 points, 17 rebounds and six assists from Pau Gasol en route to a 96-87 victory.
"We stayed together, we continued to fight and share the ball," said Lakers coach Mike Brown. "Our two bigs (Gasol and Andrew Bynum) were terrific. (Bynum) was all over the place."
These teams are very familiar with each other, having played three times during the regular season, including as recently as April 22 when World Peace was suspended for seven games after his vicious elbow caught Harden.
Oklahoma City won the first two contests by 15 points (at Chesapeake Energy Arena) and nine (Staples Center) before the Lakers rebounded to win the final meeting in Hollywood by eight in double-overtime.
"I think we know them pretty well," Gasol said of the Thunder. "We know their personnel, we know what they're good at. Obviously we won't have as much chance to look at a lot of tape, but we know who we're facing. We know how hard it's going to be and we know it's a quick turnaround. We have to stay ready mentally and physically for another battle."
In the playoffs this rivalry dates back to 1978 when the Oklahoma City franchise was known as the Seattle SuperSonics. The Sonics beat the Lakers in 1978 and '79 when they reached the NBA Finals in both years. The franchise hasn't beaten them since, losing in 1980, '87, '89, '95 and '98 as well as 2010 as the Thunder.
POINT GUARD: Many believe that the Thunder can't win a title with Russell Westbrook since he's not a natural point guard. But, quarterbacks like him are rare and Westbrook's ability to score the ball can't be underestimated. The durable UCLA product played in all 66 games this season, averaging 23.6 points, 5.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals, numbers that can be matched by few others in the game. Westbrook is all about the quick first step and his ability to penetrate. The Lakers will do everything possible to sag off and force the jumper
Ramon Sessions was the Lakers replacement for veteran Derek Fisher, who was sent packing at the trade deadline and is now in OKC backing up Westbrook. . Sessions brought much needed youth and athleticism as well as a better defensive presence to the L.A. backcourt. He certainly gives the Lakers a better chance at controlling Westbrook on paper but Fisher's veteran leadership and ability to hit big shots down the stretch of games is now on the other side.
SHOOTING GUARD: It's not about who starts for the Thunder here, it's about who finishes, Harden. Thabo Sefolosha, however, is Oklahoma City's best pure perimeter defender but not much of an offensive threat. At 6-foot-9, he has the length to at least make things more difficult for Bryant.
An aging Kobe is still one of the best four of five players on the planet and was a top five candidate to win another MVP award. Bryant, the 2009 and 2010 NBA Finals MVP, has logged a ton of NBA minutes and will occasionally lose his legs for a spell but when feeling spry he's still one of the most difficult players in the league to deal with at both ends of the floor. He ranked fourth in the NBA at 38.5 minutes per game this season, a shade behind Durant, who is in his early 20s. To win Bryant will have to go 40-plus a night, which could affect his ability as a lockdown defender, especially against Westbrook.
CENTER: Kendrick Perkins plays with a mean streak and can box out and set screens with the best of them but is dealing with a strained hip. He's been called the best interior defender in the game by Bryant so he will be a test for the talented Bynum.
The Lakers are one of the few teams that can match up with OKC's length with two 7-footers inside, Bynum and Gasol. Bynum has frustrated Brown all season with maturity issues but he's also developed into the best all-around center in basketball, at least when we wants to play. He's not the defender Dwight Howard is but can still dominate when he wants too and is a much more skilled player at the offensive end.
SMALL FORWARD: Like Bryant, Durant is one of the top players in the game and arguably the best pure scorer since Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson. He just captured his third straight scoring title, edging Bryant and becoming the first since Jordan in 1995-1998. Defenses must protect the perimeter and watch an occasional drive to the lane by Durant. Durant also led the Thunder with eight rebounds per game and is an underrated defender, so he's a major contributor in all aspects.
World Peace returned from his seven-game suspension from elbowing Harden in the head late in the regular season to help the Lakers win Game 7 against Denver. A defensive-minded, intimidating presence, World Peace will have the microscope on him and will likely be booed out of OKC thanks to his classless act that gave Harden a concussion. He'll need to be at his best since he will likely play major minutes opposite Durant.
"It's none of my concern," World Peace said when asked about playing Harden and the Thunder again. "My concern is playing the game of basketball. Everything else, isn't important to me."
POWER FORWARD: Serge Ibaka is the NBA's best shot-blocker but Pau Gasol is a far more well-rounded player. When right Gasol has been a terrific "Robin" to Bryant's "Batman" since the Lakers acquired his services during the 2007-08 campaign. The lanky Spaniard is still a top rebounder and shot blocking threat and gives the Lakers an imposing presence on the front line. He does, however, seem to lack consistency these days and is on the decline as a player.
If any Lakers decide to test their fate by driving the lane on Ibaka, they better be prepared to watch the ball get swatted into the stands. The lengthy big man is Oklahoma City's best defender and an athletic marvel with the wingspan of a Learjet. In fact, Ibaka finished second behind Chandler in the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year voting.
BENCH: Harden was the runaway winner for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award and is an excellent two-way player. OKC usually closes with a group that includes "The Beard," who is as crafty as they come.
"His pick and roll game is unreal," Durant said of Harden. "It's fun to watch, fun to be a part of. The best part about our team is that we have a lot of guys who can play off each other, and we complement each other well."
Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed are Scott Brooks' options up front off the bench while Fisher and three-point specialist Daequan Cook will get minutes in the backcourt. You have to believe that Fisher will be motivated against his ex-mates and still has enough to be effective in limited doses.
The big knock on the Lakers for most of the season revolved around the team's lack of depth and Brown certainly doesn't have many options. Guard Steve Blake, a plus ball-handler but a defensive liability, and Jordan Hill, an unproven, albeit athletic forward, were the only two players getting serious minutes in Game 7 against the Nuggets. Matt Barnes, who is dealing with a sore ankle, and Devin Ebanks didn't play all that well in World Peace's absence when they had the chance.
COACHING: There was talk, fueled by Magic Johnson, that Brown would have lost his job had the Lakers lost Game 7 to Denver but he's done well in his first season as the replacement for the legendary Phil Jackson. He's brought a more varied offensive approach and more attention to detail at the defensive end to L.A.
Brooks has done an excellent job of molding Durant, Westbrook and Harden together around a group of defensive-minded players but has occasionally clashed with Westbrook in the past while trying to rein him in. The Thunder, however, aren't known for great half-court execution under Brooks.
PREDICTION: One of these days, a scientist somewhere will discover that Bryant is a mere mortal. The Lakers' superstar has put more miles on his arthritic knee than a traveling salesman puts on an 1985 Buick. Yet, Bryant has the Lakers in the West semis again with the talented Thunder waiting. And that's the key to this series -- it's rest vs. rust.
Oklahoma City has been waiting while L.A. was in the fight of its life to get by the Nuggets. The Thunder could surely show signs of that rust early but they'll recover. This paper-thin Lakers team needed a little rest and they'll get it soon enough.
"It is going to be tough because one: Kevin Durant is mad because he thought he should have won MVP. In order to be the best, you have to beat the best. Kevin Durant is tired of being No. 3, No. 4," former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal said. "This is his chance to prove that he is the best and James Harden is going to be playing out of his mind."
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: THUNDER in 6