Russell will still wind up on the cover of S.I., but not this week.

Two Teams Enter, One Team Leaves, and thanks to the Gas Man topping it off, that One Team is the Lakers, who leave the Okies in their dust, Mad to the Max

Russell Westbrook ran out of gas, and Oklahoma City ran out of Gasol-blockers.

On a night when the NBA’s leading scorer Kevin Durant went 5-for-23 from the floor, Thunder Point Guard Russell Westbrook had to lead the charge, and that’s exactly what he did.  After the Lakers once again took early control of the game, going up by 9, Westbrook got aggressive, and even with Kobe guarding him, Westbrook mixed it up for 8 1st Quarter Points.  While Durant was missing all five of his shots in the period, Westbrook and Center Nenad Krstic carried the Thunder to a 27-26 lead by the end of the Quarter.  And that’s AFTER the Thunder started 1 for their first 10 shots.

In the 2nd Quarter, something unheard of started to occur:  The Laker Bench contributed.  And not just one guy — There were FOUR different reserves who played important roles in the victory, as they outscored the OKC non-starters, 30-16.  Shannon Brown started it off with 7 quick Points, and Jordan Farmar kept it going with 3 nice Assists in just a few minutes, and later a solid three-pointer. Also, Lamar Odom made some nice plays, including a 4th quarter drive and dunk, and finally, Luke Walton hit two straight shots in the 4th that were huge in keeping the Thunder at bay.

The influx of Offense from the bench, along with a much more aggessive Kobe Bryant and his 14 1st Half Points put the Lakers up by 6 at the Intermission.  Then the 3rd Quarter belonged to Kobe.  The Black Mamba dropped SIXTEEN Points in the 3rd Quarter alone, before picking up his 3rd and 4th fouls and getting yanked.

After Kobe came out, the Thunder cut the lead down to 3, as the 4th Quarter began.  The Lakers stayed in front, building the lead up to 7 about halfway through the period.  Then, Westbrook made one final push to save his team’s season.  He made a three-point shot, then followed up his own miss to get a put-back AND ONE.  That “and one” gave the Thunder a 1-point lead with just over 3 minutes to go.  Unfortunately for OKC, that “and one” also drained Westbrook’s tank.  In the final three minutes of the game, Westbrook missed four straight shots, starting with an airball, and ending with a desperation shot at the buzzer that would have won the game.

38 seconds before that miss, with the Thunder up by 1, Pau Gasol missed a fairly easy (for him) 5-foot mini-hook shot, and Westbrook controlled the Rebound.  But with a chance to put the Thunder up by 3, Westbrook missed a fairly easy (for him) short baseline jumper.  That set it up for Kobe to win it, since he IS the Best Closer in the Game, and already had a game-high 32 Points.  But this time, with Westbrook defending (and for some idiotic reason, no double-team help coming), Kobe fired his turnaround jumper TOO LONG, and it clanked off the iron with a half-a-second left in the game.  There were two Thunder big men underneath, but, just for a split-second, they thought the game was over, and they hesitated just for the blink of an eye.  But that was long enough for the alert Pau Gasol to avoid getting blocked out by either Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison, grab the ball — FOR HIS EIGHTEENTH REBOUND — and bank it right back in for the lead.

With .5 left, the Thunder tried to free up Westbrook for an alley-oop dunk off the inbounds pass, but Phil Jackson’s defense was specifically designed to stop that.  So Westbrook broke out to the perimeter.  With Durant blanketed by Ron Artest (who should get some credit for Durant’s lousy night as well as for two straight clutch jumpers in the 4th), the inbounds pass went to Westbrook, and amazingly, he DID get off a shot before time expired, but it was short, glancing off the iron, and ending the Thunder’s breakthrough season with a 95-94 loss.  The fact that 3 of Westbrook’s last 4 shots missed SHORT, including an airball, would support the argument that he and his legs just ran out of petrol, after having to carry his team for 4 quarters. 

Westbrook ended with 21 Points, 9 Assists, 5 Rebounds, 3 Steals, and remarkably, ZERO Turnovers in 42 Point Guard minutes.  But his poor (7-for-20) shooting including 1-6 from behind the arc was his undoing (which comes as no surprise to UCLA fans).  In his defense, his shooting in general is continuing to improve, and, a couple of his misses were desperation shots.  Also, he made 6 of his 7 Free Throws.  Russell will be fine;  I believe that his shooting will improve so that he becomes a perennial NBA All-Star, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him wearing a Championship Ring in less than the 7 years that it took Michael Jordan and LeBron James (and that is if James wins this year).  But on Friday night, in his first-ever do-or-die, back-to-the-wall Playoff game, Russell gave everything he had throughout the game, and was running on empty when the finish line appeared, allowing the Lakers to pass the Thunder and take the checkered flag, with a 4-2 win, of a unexpectedly-challenging Series.  And it will be even tougher next year if the same two teams meet again.

On Sunday, the Lakers start a new Series, this time against the Utah Jazz, who knocked out the higher-seeded Nuggets and Arron Afflalo, 4-2.  The Lakers will be huge favorites, since they have home-court advantage, and since they beat Utah 3 out of 4 during the year.  Also, the Jazz is dealing with injuries that are even worse than the Lakers’ infirmities.  However, Utah does have Carlos Boozer, who grabbed 20 Rebounds to go along with his 22 Points in last night’s clincher.  They also have the League’s Best Point Guard, as annointed by the TNT analysts, in Deron Williams.  We already know (from a previous Laker-Jazz Series) that neither Derek Fisher nor Jordan Farmar can guard Williams, so maybe Kobe will have to shift over, like he did against Westbrook.  Williams will be a difference-maker no matter what, but he is probably not enough for Utah to take the Series.  Even with an incredible Home Record in Salt Lake, and with Hall of Fame Coach Jerry Sloan — the longest-tenured Coach in all of Pro Sports — the Jazz should be overmatched against the formerly-sleeping giants, whom the Thunder just awakened.  Conventional wisdom probably has the Lakers doing the same thing they did to OKC — Taking Games 1 and 2 at Staples, losing 3 and 4 in hostile territory, winning Game 5 back at Home, and then buckling down to take Game 6 on the Road, to avoid an all-or-nothing Game 7 showdown.  Sounds like a good pattern to me.

In the East, Atlanta staved off elimination by beating Milwaukee in Milwaukee, so now Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Dan Gadzuric, and the Bucks will have to upset the Hawks IN Atlanta in Game 7 if they want to face Matt Barnes and Orlando in Round 2.


And if you were wondering:  Yeah, there will be a lot more brand new UCLA Cheerleader photos, coming up this week.