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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Changing of guard doesn't change L.A.'s old playoff problem

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Derek Fisher, dumped by the Lakers when they wanted an upgrade at point guard, now plays for the Thunder ... and his successor was dismantled Monday by Thunder starter Russell Westbrook as Fisher looked on. Rich.

It would be sweet vindication for Fisher if that were in his nature. It would also be foolish to think that the autopsy would have read differently had he still been wearing purple, no matter how many playoff moments he had in L.A.

The fact is, now that Ramon Sessions is playing piƱata at the point, the Lakers still don't have an answer for speed ball handlers. And the Thunder still have Westbrook. End of discussion.

Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal saw Westbrook pile up 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting, nine assists (against one turnover) and seven rebounds in an overwhelming individual showing that led an overwhelming 119-90 Thunder victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Westbrook can obviously do that against anybody. Doing it against the Lakers came after Denver's Ty Lawson got where he wanted in the first round. Which came after Chris Paul worked them over pretty good in the first round last year, which came after Steve Nash, Aaron Brooks, Deron Williams and other quick point guards sent shivers through Los Angeles.

For Westbrook to do it with Fisher there -- a few feet away in reality, but a thousand miles away in his mind, because he never really wanted to leave the Lakers -- was just too perfect. Sessions got torched just like Fisher would have and, indeed, Kobe Bryant fared no better when he got a chance to guard Westbrook. It didn't matter.

When Fisher was traded so L.A. could acquire Sessions, it resulted in an upgrade on offense but little discernible difference on defense.

"It's their explosiveness," Bryant said of the Thunder. "When they go on runs, they go on big runs. We have to do a better job when those runs take place to cut that water off right away. Once they get going, it goes downhill quickly."

Someone asked him as the final question at the postgame press conference if the Lakers can guard the Thunder.

"No," Bryant said, sending a deep stare back at the inquisitor.

He was being sarcastic. Bryant laughed as he got up from the chair and shook his head as he walked down the hallway toward the team bus. It was a fair question, though. There is doubt outside the locker room whether L.A. can guard OKC.

The Thunder are younger, faster and no longer the wide-eyed kids that they were when these teams met in the first round two years ago. And when that lethal offense with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Westbrook shoots 53 percent and sets a franchise postseason record with four turnovers -- as they did in Game 1 -- forget it. Any opponent is going home with tire tracks on their forehead.

"Russell's had a great year," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He's improved every year since we've had him, since we drafted him four years ago. His mid-range game is as good as any point guard in this league. He's athletic, he can get to the spot, he can stop on a dime, and he can pull up and shoot that shot. He has a very tough competitor on him, in Kobe. But it's hard to guard Russell. He comes at you, and he comes at you with a lot of force."

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