CHANGING OF THE GUARD:<br />
Is Kevin Durant the Next Kobe Bryant?

The Oklahoma City Thunder came one step closer to the NBA Finals after a 16-point Game Five victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

While Kobe Bryant put up a valiant effort to force a game six, the Thunder put the pressure on his inconsistent supporting cast to beat them. The Mamba seemed focused on doing it all himself, as he hoisted 33 shots en route to a 42 point performance. Although the scoring outburst isn’t anything new, Bryant didn’t register a single assist in 41 minutes of play.

It’s hard to blame the future hall of famer for attempting to single-handedly carry his team, after seeing very lackluster performances from his frontcourt, namely Pau Gasol. Often criticized for his “soft” play, the Spaniard turned in a double-double with 14 points & 16 rebounds in the series finale. However, Gasol’s series averages of 12 points & 10 boards are what spoke volumes of his unenthusiastic effort throughout the five game series. The Los Angeles big man also registered two games of only 10 points and fewer than eight rebounds, throughout this conference semifinals match-up. After a season of controversy surrounding the 31-year-old forward, his performance in this year’s playoffs did nothing to support his future campaign in a Lakers uniform.

In the sudden ending of the Lakers' season, we saw the proverbial torch passed from Kobe Bryant to OKC’s Kevin Durant. The 23-year-old phenom propelled his team to its second straight appearance in the Western Conference Finals, leading the Thunder to an 8-1 playoff record. The Thunder’s advancement sets up a match-up with the 8-0 San Antonio Spurs, led by Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. The youthful trio of Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden will have their hands full with a Spurs team that’s won 18 consecutive games, dating back to the regular season. San Antonio managed to win two of the three regular season match-ups against the Thunder, despite each team posting nearly identical statistics. The Western Conference finals will pit youthful exuberance versus conventional wisdom, with many experts choosing the ageless wonders to move on to the NBA Finals.

Not to be outdone, the almost geriatric Boston Celtics are also on the cusp of advancing to the Eastern Conference finals after taking a 3-2 series lead over the Philadelphia 76ers. Game six will shift back to Philadelphia on Wednesday, where the Sixers will be looking to avenge this 16-point loss and force a seventh game. The eventual winner of this series will have their hands full regardless of their opponent, as the Heat and Pacers are nodded up at two games apiece. Still without their star power forward Chris Bosh; Miami got record-setting performances from their two superstars LeBron James and Dwayne Wade as they head back to Miami for Tuesday’s game five. With the momentum shifted in the directions of Boston and Miami, the final four teams could be locked in very soon, ensuring an epic NBA Finals match-up!

Steve Rivers has contributed to The Source, ESPN Rise and a host of other online publications. Follow him on Twitter: @TheKidSkoob.