For two years, the Los Angeles Lakers figured they had an answer for Russell Westbrook.
They thought they could sic their All-NBA defender on Oklahoma City's Tasmanian devil of a point guard and eliminate their biggest matchup problem.
Might be time they think again.
When Los Angeles walked into Chesapeake Energy Arena on Monday night, the Lakers ran into a different Russell Westbrook. This version has grown, bigger, faster, stronger and smarter than he was two seasons ago. And once he got going, the Lakers had nothing, and most importantly, no one who could slow him down.
The Thunder thumped the Lakers 119-90 in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinals series behind Westbrook's all-around dominance.
Westbrook scored a game-high 27 points on 10-for-15 shooting. He pulled down seven rebounds, dished out nine assists and turned it over just once in 27 minutes.
Seven seconds in, Westbrook set the tone by snatching the first of his two steals on the night. On this one, he jumped a Ramon Sessions entry pass into Pau Gasol and sparked a fast break that led to a Thabo Sefolosha layup. On the next Thunder possession, Westbrook found Kevin Durant for a driving, stretching, left-handed dunk over Lakers center Andrew Bynum.
By the time Westbrook buried his first two shots, both pull-up jumpers, it was clear it would be his night.
And it had become just as obvious that Lakers guard Kobe Bryant no longer could check Westbrook the way he had when these two teams locked horns in the opening round two years ago.
“I just feel a little more experienced,” Westbrook said when asked how this Game 1 felt different from his playoff debut in 2010. “I feel a lot more comfortable. My teammates do a great job of getting me open and getting me to the spots where I can be effective. I'm just feeling a lot more comfortable. This is my fourth year now.”
When Westbrook made his playoff debut in his second season, he torched the Lakers and carried the Thunder to a thrilling six-game series. But when Bryant switched onto him, Westbrook struggled to have the same success.
Monday night, Bryant was no match.
“I thought he was good,” said Lakers coach Mike Brown. “I thought he was good in pick-and-rolls early on. And then I thought he was good in the post as the game went along. So he had a great performance on both ends of the floor.”
Going into the series, Bryant appeared to be a sufficient answer for slowing Westbrook. Even in the last regular season meeting between these two teams, Bryant helped to hold Westbrook to a 3-for-22 shooting night in L.A.'s eight-point double overtime win.
With Lakers bulldog defender Metta World Peace attached to Durant, it seemed James Harden would be the matchup nightmare for the Lakers this time around.
But Westbrook's decision-making and pace quickly proved he's still a problem for L.A.
Perhaps most impressive was Westbrook's assist-to-turnover ratio. His nine assists against one turnover mirrored his team's effort in a department that has been problematic all season.
But in Game 1, the Thunder had 20 assists and just four turnovers.
“We played good basketball,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “Like I told the guys, it's one game. It's the first team to four that will win this series. And come Wednesday night, regardless of you won by one or 20, it doesn't have an impact on Wednesday night. We have to come back with the same energy. We know the Lakers are going to play much better.”