The Plot Cycle of a Contender: Lakers, Thunder Have Come Full Circle

Introductory high school English courses taught us how every piece of literature must go through a similar plot cycle in order for it to be a complete story. The exposition, where character and conflict is introduced, followed by the rising action, culminating in the climax before a resolution to the initial conflict is found.

You may be wondering what that has to do with anything, but stick with me here as my inner-nerd  is screaming for joy as I have the opportunity to fuse my love for professional basketball and English class.  There’s a stark similarity between the development of a plot narrative and the evolution of a contending team in the National Basketball Association.

Anyone who follows basketball is aware of who Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden (the main characters) are. Oklahoma City drafted these three players in successive years hoping to one day compete with the likes of the mighty San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers (the conflict).

Despite their annual meteoric improvement as a team, they’ve run into teams that have had more playoff experience than them in the past two years, the Dallas Mavericks last year and the Lakers the year before, and were consequently eliminated.

Now with the Lakers and the Thunder set for a playoff rematch, the developmental story of the Oklahoma City Thunder is quickly reaching its climax. After disposing of the Mavericks in four games, the Thunder now have the opportunity to supplant the dominant power of the Western Conference in a potential changing-of-the-guard series.

As a Laker fan, it pains me to look back at 2010 opening round series against the Thunder and compare it to present day.

During that series, in which the Lakers won four games to two, the Thunder were testing the playoff waters for the first time since emigrating to Oklahoma City from Seattle. While the Lakers saw the youthful Thunder as merely a roadblock on their way to championship number 16.

In 2010, the Thunder surprisingly gave the defending champions a lot of trouble, especially in Games 3, 4 and 6 in Oklahoma City. This was true for several reasons: the blinding quickness of their point guard Russell Westbrook in the open court, the length of their scoring machine Kevin Durant, and Thabo Sefolosha’s ability to contain Kobe Bryant (in Game 4 he held Bryant to 12 points, in Game 5, thirteen).

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Fast forward to present day, and the problems the Lakers had with the Thunder two years ago are now amplified exponentially due to the improvement of the Thunder. Heck, they finished above the Lakers in the regular season standings by a whopping six games. You could say that these teams are at opposite ends of the NBA plot cycle.

The core of the Lakers from the team that won a championship in 2010 remains largely unchanged with the exception of Derek Fisher, who is now a member of the Thunder. Reggie Miller recently praised the job Danny Ainge, general manager of the Boston Celtics, who continually surrounded the big four with versatile role players: “as long as you have your core intact, you can always plug pieces around them,” Miller believes.

The problem with the Lakers is that while their core may be as strong as ever, there are a myriad of question marks surrounding the role players Mitch Kupchak has equipped Bynum, Gasol and Bryant with.

Two years ago, the Lakers’ biggest advantage was  their post play. The Thunder countered the frontcourt of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum with Nenad Krstic (who’s not even in the league anymore) and Jeff Green (really just an over-sized small forward).

In 2012, that advantage is nearly negated.

Fact: Andrew Bynum improved so dramatically this year under Mike Brown he deserved to be named to his first All-Star team.

Another fact: the Thunder’s addition of Kendrick Perkins (the same guy who gave the Lakers nightmares in the 2008 Finals) and the emergence of Serge Ibaka (the NBA’s leading shot-blocker) have me wondering if the Lakers even have an advantage on the inside anymore.

Series’ like this one are why the playoffs are so intriguing. We can discuss how we think these two teams will match up two years later, but there’s realistically no way of knowing how things will pan out besides tuning into the games. Depending on which of the two bipolar Laker teams show up, this series will be a war of attrition fought in the trenches won out by the Lakers after they realize that the Thunder still have yet to win a championship with this core players; or the Thunder may do away with the veteran Lakers just as they did with the Mavericks.

You always hear that teams need to learn to lose before they can learn to win. The Michael Jordan-led Bulls were shown the exit sign by the ‘Bad Boy’ Pistons three times before finally getting over the hump in 1991. They went on to string together six championships.

Even the glorious Shaq-Kobe Lakers had to go through three coaches and were swept twice in the playoffs by the Utah Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs before Phil Jackson ushered the duo to three straight championships.

But if the regular season is any indication, OKC’s time on top is due to come sooner rather than later. I’m not being pessimistic with the Lakers’ chances in this series, just realistic based on how these teams fared in the regular season.

In the first two meetings of the season, the Lakers were able to stay with the Thunder by dictating the pace of the tempo early in the game. Bynum established deep position early and often and on the other end Durant struggled to shoot well despite getting quality looks.

Then once Scott Brooks inserted James Harden, the Sixth Man of the Year, the pendulum of both games swung in the Thunder’s favor. Once Harden is the catalyst to the Thunder opening the floodgates on the Lakers, there was really no turning back. The Lakers lost both games definitively, by 15 points the first game and by nine in the second.

Before you defend how the Lakers glamorously overcame an 18-point deficit to defeat the Thunder in double overtime, highlighted by Bryant’s timely shooting; remember the comeback wouldn’t have been probable without Metta World Peace’s now infamous elbow.

The dynamics of this series have taken a 180 since the last time these two teams met in the playoffs. This time around the Lakers enter the series as the underdog, a situation they’re not accustomed to especially in the early rounds.

You can’t stop a team whose time has come (the Thunder). But you’ll also have an extremely difficult time eliminating a team on its last legs desperate to make one last run at a championship (the Lakers).

The NBA playoffs are the ultimate page turner, as there are endless twists and turns during the two month marathon.

We read novels not only because we enjoy the book but because we can’t wait to find out how the plot cycle ends. In the same way, we watch the playoffs not always because not only do we enjoy it but because we can’t wait to find out if the team we root for will complete the plot cycle of a contending NBA team by hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.

I hope my high school English teacher is reading this somewhere, I told you I paid attention in class, Mrs. Fields.

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