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In Wilbon's World

So much for all the panic

LOS ANGELES --The anxiety and apprehension that gripped greater L.A. for the better part of two full days was over 10 minutes into Game 5. The defending champions finally recognized the decided advantage they hold over Oklahoma City and played to it ...possession after possession after possession after possession.

With a numbing discipline, the Lakers -- even Kobe Bryant -- threw the ball inside to 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and the two most skilled big men on the court, and they buried Oklahoma City. The only statistic that mattered in the Lakers' thoroughly one-sided victory is that Los Angeles scored 36 points in the paint the first half to Oklahoma City's 10. If the Lakers hold no other athletic advantage over the younger, quicker, more athletic and energetic Thunder, it has height and length, being nearer to the basket. That was the game, in a nutshell. There was no suspense, no reason whatsoever if you live in the East or Midwest not to turn off the TV and go to bed. The Big Event was a dud.

So much for all the panic, for the notion that Tuesday night perhaps being the night these Lakers would drag their old bodies around the Staples Center for the final time together. The fear was palpable as the stars and starlets entered the building. Kobe was so injured, he looked so old, maybe he was simply done. Phil Jackson might be coaching his last game. Jerry Buss, the owner who had opened his checkbook to put this team on the floor, was going to dismantle the whole thing ... if the Lakers lost Game 5 because surely they couldn't go there (if they'd lost here) and solve the Thunder in Oklahoma City, where they'd dismantled the champs twice last week.

Okay, the Lakers didn't win the best-of-seven series last night; they still have to go to Oklahoma City Friday for Game 6 and perhaps back here Sunday for Game 7. And just because Bynum and Gasol can jump over the top of the Thunder players doesn't mean they can do that to San Antonio or Dallas or Phoenix or Utah. Still, you have to like the Lakers' chances now that they've figured out exactly how to win.

Bryant is hurting more (back and knee) than he's letting on. And he still doesn't get to the basket much these days, leading people as knowledgeable as Hall of Famer Charles Barkley to tell Kornheiser and me on PTI Tuesday afternoon, "all great players get old." Barkley's not the only one to think that; he's just honest enough to say it. We don't know what Kobe is capable of (or not) because Kobe played it smart from tipoff to buzzer in Game 5. He spent most of his energy guarding the previously unguardable Russell Westbrook of OKC, while on offense he mostly dumped the ball inside to Gasol and Bynum and piled up assists.

At the end of three quarters Kobe had nine shots and seven assists. I dare you to find that ratio anywhere in his playoff portfolio. Ron Artest had five assists and no turnovers, and I dare you to find that, too. Gasol had 25 points and 11 rebounds. Bynum, who at times can be completely worthless, had 19 points on seven-for-eight shooting. There was no breaking ranks, no individual expression, just pounding the rock inside, like when you're playing your little shrimp brother on the playground. No Kobe acrobatics, no jacking up threes. When Ron Artest took the floor looking more like Barack Obama about the head than Dennis Rodman, you knew the Lakers would be in no-nonsense mode.

If this is the best way for the Lakers to play this team, then perhaps they'd better embrace it. By the end of the third quarter the champs had outscored OKC in the paint 50-14. OKC had no fast break points to speak of, no second chance points worth mentioning. They were docile, broken, at least for this game. The Lakers walked out of the locker room and just slapped the Thunder upside the head. It was 14-1, 29-14, 50-30. OKC missed its first 13 shots, four of which the Lakers blocked.

The Lakers didn't play like they were simply defending something; the played like they were trying to take something. They played with the kind of aggression, resolve and passion we hadn't seen from them in this series. We've seen Cleveland play that way, we've seen the Spurs play that way. We've seen the Celtics and Bucks, even the Bulls play that way, but not the Lakers ... until Game 5.

And they'll need to if they're going to win it all again. The hard truth is that had they lost Gamed 5, it was going to be the end of the Lakers as we've known them. Jerry Buss has let enough people know that he paid big money for this team and it's coach, Phil Jackson, and he's not going to do it again if they lose. Everybody in Southern California knows that, which is why folks are so anxious. This, the locals felt, was the biggest game since last year's Game 7 against Houston. Anything less than a championship and they know they're not going to see Jackson back and they're not going to see Buss spend this kind of money again, not even next year, not even if it means Kobe (who did extend his deal) is less than happy.

And they're not ready for that yet, and neither are the Lakers. "It was," Lamar Odom said, "the perfect time for us to have this game. ... We did all the things we hadn't done, like get the ball inside. ... On our first five baskets we had four assists. Kobe kept Westbrook outside using his size advantage; he contested every jump shot."

I asked Odom if there was anything good about losing the way the Lakers did in Game 4, getting their doors blown off. "Yes," he said. "It's humbling and sometimes you need to be humbled. You need to be reminded of how it feels to lose and be embarrassed."

So don't let anybody tell you the Lakers didn't feel their own sense of urgency. As Derek Fisher said, "There are certain times where losses are just different. ... Certain losses, you're not even sure what you could have done different, and you just have to go back to the drawing board."

So, Phil Jackson and the Lakers went back to basics in Game 5, a must-win game. They did the thing that's worked best since Dr. Naismith hung peach baskets in a gym in Springfield. They threw the ball to the tallest guys and let them go to work. Every now and again, even in the NBA playoffs, it's simple if not easy.


Michael Wilbon

 |  April 28, 2010; 9:31 AM ET  |  Category:  NBA Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The panic may be gone from L.A. but it's expanding like a mushroom cloud over Cleveland... How does a two time MVP lay an egg like that when so much is on the line?

Posted by: shimmieshine | May 12, 2010 1:00 PM
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How about them Spurs?

Posted by: unclemep | May 8, 2010 10:02 AM
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Wilbon made a comment in the chat house this week concerning the popularity totem pole of the local DC teams. Dan Steinberg called his bluff and took him out to the wood shed!

Wilbon VS Steinberg

Game, Set, and Match to Steinberg!

Know your facts next time Mike!

Posted by: croftonpost | May 5, 2010 10:05 PM
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Is there any way you guys in the Sports Dept can remember that Washington has a professional women's basketball team? Boswell went to great lengths to talk about how wonderful for the Nats that they have no sports competition here in the city until the Redskins really get going. Do you have any respect for your woman readers and professional sportswomen???

Posted by: lynnekenn | May 4, 2010 10:24 AM
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Urnesto, a little advice

The internet has millions of places to go and read articles about sports, so rather than b*tching and moaning because the writer does not cover your favourite team or topic, why not, mmmm I dont know, maybe use that google thing and find someone who is writing about them.

Posted by: PommyLee | April 28, 2010 9:29 PM
Report Offensive Comment -- Kobe had a shots to assist ratio of 10:7 for the entire game. And he did not attempt any field goals in the fourth quarter. No dare intimidates Lebron. Now, I realize that 10:7 is not the same ratio as 9:7...but still, give the King some credit. By the way, the arm is feeling fine. I hope you're doing well, Mike.

Posted by: lebronjames | April 28, 2010 8:07 PM
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I am sorry to pile on, but you really need to step up your game. When you write in this space, you're writing to these readers. How much do you really think we care that you're down with Kobe? OUR basketball team got a new owner, and yet you make up/exaggerate a non-story just to be front-running once again. I live in LA (but am a die-hard Bullets fan) -- and there was no noticeable panic at all. Everyone knew they would get it together. This was a lot less panicky than Houston or Denver last year (both of which the Lakers won). It was a minor hiccup, and I don't think anyone measured OKC's chances as better than 10% despite the series being tied. Also, is "Kornheiser" now like Prince and Madonna where only one name is necessary? No, he's not like Prince or Madonna. If you identify "HOFer Charles Barkley" then you sure as heck need to identify "Thrice-fired, bitter despot Tony Kornheiser." Just cause he's your boy, doesn't mean the rest of us are down with him. And also who cares that Barkley's quote came on your ESPN show? (Answer: Nobody but you and "Kornheiser"). Why can't you simply say, Barkley said X? Also, to write this much on a 1st round matchup just because Kobe is involved, given how little you write on the Bullets, is absurd. You had your Oedipal temper tantrum about Blatche that soon got proven to be bunk by every blogger out there, but that's it. Lastly, you should not call someone a "loser" - regardless of how dynamic you believe it makes your writing. Just don't do it. There's no need for it, it's mean, and given how down you are with "Kornheiser," it seems crazy hypocritical.

Posted by: Urnesto | April 28, 2010 4:30 PM
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Everybody better enjoy beating the Thunder now... The future is bright for this team!!!

Posted by: bigdaddy77 | April 28, 2010 1:29 PM
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Excellent written article, now they just need a repeat performance on Friday Night.

Posted by: ADukesIII | April 28, 2010 11:48 AM
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