Lakers, Thunder begin new battle

L.A. Lakers At Oklahoma City, Game 1, 9:30 p.m. EDT

Metta World Peace made his return from a seven-game suspension in front of a home crowd eager for him to help the Los Angeles Lakers survive a first-round playoff scare and advance with a thrilling Game 7 victory.

His next stop doesn’t figure to be nearly so friendly.

The Lakers start the Western Conference semifinals Monday night at Oklahoma City in the teams’ first meeting since World Peace – formerly known as Ron Artest – gave the Thunder’s James Harden a concussion by hitting him in the head with his elbow.

Oklahoma City has had more than a week to anticipate the matchup after sweeping defending NBA champion Dallas in the first round, giving fans plenty of time to get fired up to welcome a player who became instantly infamous three weeks ago.

“Good, old-fashioned Southern hospitality. That’s the type of reception that I expect that he’ll get, and that’s fair game,” said former teammate Derek Fisher, now a bench player for the Thunder. “The fans will be excited. I’m looking forward to being on this side of these fans this time at this point in the season.

“I can only imagine the amount of energy they have stored up. We’ll have to properly use that energy. Can’t get too caught up in it.”

With Harden leading the way, the Thunder insisted they’re over the incident that happened in the Lakers’ 114-106 double-overtime victory on April 22 in Los Angeles. Instead, they’re focused on reaching the conference finals for a second straight year.

“What can I say? The focus is going out there and doing whatever it takes to win,” Harden said after practice Sunday. “I’m not worried about him or what he has to say.”

World Peace proclaimed after the Lakers’ win over Denver the previous night that he doesn’t shake the hands of substitutions, even his best friends. So Harden, the league’s Sixth Man of the Year, certainly isn’t getting one to go along with the personal apology he never got.

“Shaking hands is, like, so low on our concerns right now, it’s not really an issue,” Oklahoma City forward Nick Collison said.

“I think we’re going to be ready to play.”

Starting center Kendrick Perkins went through Oklahoma City’s practice Sunday for the first time since straining a muscle in his right hip in a Game 4 victory against Dallas eight days earlier.

Collison and Harden said they expect Perkins to play in Game 1, although coach Scott Brooks refuses to make a decision until at least Monday and possibly not until game time.

Perkins was active enough in practice to sweat through his T-shirt, and he appeared to be pain-free during a round of jump shots after practice. He was not made available to speak to reporters.

Beyond providing resistance to the Lakers’ All-Star frontcourt tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, he’s also the team’s primary enforcer if there’s another dust-up.

“That’s the only thing that we care about: It’s the first to four who wins the series,” Brooks said. “The subplots, that’s part of NBA basketball. You don’t worry about that. If you focus on that, your attention, your focus is not where it needs to be.

“We understand what happened. It happened. We moved on weeks ago.”

That may not hold true for the sellout crowd expected at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

“That’s not my concern. My concern is playing the game of basketball,” World Peace said on TNT after the Lakers’ Game 7 win.

“Everything else is not really – it’s not important to me.”

Fisher has the unique perspective of having won five NBA titles with the Lakers before they traded him away this season. He bought out his contract with the Houston Rockets and signed with Oklahoma City in late March, and perhaps it was inevitable that he would face his former team now.

He agreed with Kobe Bryant’s sentiment that the series would compare to playing against his brother, although he considered even those to be loaded words.

“Your brother oftentimes was the recipient of some of the hardest blows you ever delivered. I’m sure he’s planning to deliver quite a few, and I’ll be ready to deliver some as well,” Fisher said. “It’s going to be fun to just have to compete against the best. That’s what we want to be.”

Beating the Lakers may be the only way to take all the focus off what happened three weeks ago and put it back on the championship chase.

“Hopefully, he has the same feelings that we all have. It’s a bad play. It should have never happened,” Brooks said. “But we’re focused on playing basketball. It’s not going to be between James and Ron. It’s going to be about us playing good basketball as a team to beat that team.”

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