Phil Jackson’s psyche jobs. Kobe Bryant’s fourth-quarter takeovers. The long arms of 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum playing volleyball with every potential Thunder rebound. Ron Artest’s man-crush defense that smears hair dye all over Kevin Durant.
A crowd so celebrity-loaded that California First Lady Maria Shriver, of some note independent of Gov. Schwarzenegger, is relegated to the Staples Center’s second row. An alphabet soup media crush of ESPN, TNT, Yahoo, AOL and various Chinese derivatives. Your Thunder comes home tonight, and here’s where the lads have been. Playoff School. There’s no NBA playoff baptism like games against the Lakers. No crash course in postseason intensity like game after game against the Ten Master. No preparation for the national glare like game after game against the El Segundo Aqueducts, the franchise of West and Wilt and Baylor and Jabbar and Magic and Shaq and Kobe. Wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued after a late-season swoon landed the Thunder in the eighth seed. Wrong attitude. Playing the Lakers is the best thing that could happen to the Thunder. This series, which the Lakers lead after two cage-fight wins, will do more long term for the Thunder than any other kind of series, win or lose, could have done. The Thunder is finding out what it’s made of. And what it seems to be made of is a healthy portion of grit and skill. "You’re playing against one of the best coaches of all sports and one of the best players ever,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Jackson, a 10-time NBA champion. "You learn from playing against the best players and the best team. We’re going to keep fighting to learn how to beat ’em.” The Thunder could have drawn Phoenix or Denver or Utah. Might even have advanced. No way will Kobe or Phil or the NBA gods allow that to happen in the Laker series. But no matter. It’s a better education to make C’s at Carnegie-Mellon than straight A’s at Ridgemont High. And the Thunder is getting a basketball education that will pay off in years to come. Durant said the Tuesday night effort was one of the Thunder’s best of the year. "We played hard,” Durant said. "It gives us confidence.” Sure, it would have been nice had the Thunder come home 1-1.