Preview & Chat: The Oklahoma City Thunder

Kurt —  November 3, 2009

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Records: Lakers 2-1 Thunder 2-1
Offensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 102.3, Thunder 101.1
Defensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 101.9 Thunder 96.6
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Jeff Green, Kevin Durant, Nenad Krstic

The Lakers Coming in: Once again, no Gasol tonight (or tomorrow in Houston). Gasol had an MRI yesterday and check back right here for the update on the results when they come through. Also, Kobe Bryant is running a fever and is not feeling well, so expect him to only play 35 minutes tonight.

Darius added this in the comments:

I just wanted to note that on the 2001 Lakers team:

*Shaq missed 8 games
*Kobe missed 14 games
*Fisher missed 62 games
*The Lakers won 56 games which was good for 1st in the Pacific Division, 2nd in the Western Conference
*The Lakers repeated as Champions and went 15-1 in the playoffs

I say all this because injuries happen and they may disrupt what many were hoping could be a historical season. But we must keep our eyes on the finish line and not just at the starting gate. Like other teams coached by Phil Jackson, the goal is to be playing your best when the playoffs start. Let us have good health when the second season begins and take our chances.

One other thing we need to note about the start of the season (something that has come up in the comments): Lamar Odom has played with a newfound confidence so far. He is handling the ball a lot more in initiating the offense, and with that his assists are way up: Last season he average 3.2 assists per 36 minutes on the court, this season he is at 6.1 per 36, nearly doubled. (To be fair, his turnovers are up from 2.1 to 3.7 per 36.) But more than just numbers, you see it in his game, he looks more comfortable. He doesn’t fear the jump shot and is shooting 44% from the midrange (most of his shots still come at the rim or from beyond the arc). He had an off game against Dallas, the entire team did, but he has been different early on. Let’s hope it lasts.

The Thunder Coming in: There is a buzz about this team right now. And there should be — when you are starting to build a contender, this is what it looks like. They are years and several key players away, but you can see it all starting to take shape, things are coming together. Maybe the best example was their loss — they barely lost to the Trailblazers on a night Durant was 3 for 21 from the floor. That is a team they are building.

Still, Kevin Durant is the star. He was the focus of a little Internet and statistics stir when the ex-Dallas stat guy Wayne Winston said he wouldn’t want Durant on his team. I think that statement borders on the idiotic. I’m personally not a huge fan of the adjusted plus minus stat that Winston lives by, which is a debate for another day, but I think raw +/- numbers have some value. And the fact is that Durant’s +/- was bad and his team did do worse when he was on the court. I think the reason is defense — it is the area where he needs to step up. Scoring matters, but the best can do it at both ends (Kobe, LeBron, Howard, Garnett, etc). If Durant wants to be in that kind of company, his defense needs to get there. (Also, read Henry at TrueHoop’s open letter to Durant, which I thought was very good.)

Westbrook at the point is a key for the Thunder — he sets them up, gets the ball rolling. The former Bruin is the spark plug. Matt Moore over at Hardwood Paroxysms added that Jeff Green and Durant are playing off each other much better this season and that has been a key reason for the team’s improvement. He also said not to sleep on Etan Thomas, who has been playing good as well.

I got to see James Harden at Summer League and really liked his game. In college wasn’t sure what to make of him — some nights he looked brilliant, other nights not so much. But I think had to do with how he was defended; there was not a lot of help around him so double and even triple teams were the norm. Now, with the floor spread around him, his playmaking is standing out (38% of his possessions this season have ended with an assist).

Bottom line, there is reason for the buzz — this team started 3-29 last season, now they are already looking to match that total in their fifth game. The playoffs are not out of the question.

Blogs and Links: Royce is working it over at Daily Thunder.

Also, there is Sonicsgate.

Keys to game: First road game of the year for the Lakers, which shouldn’t affect a team that won the title on the road but it is something to watch. Also, first game of a back-to-back, and you always want to win the first one, it is the easier of the two (last year the Lakers were 14-5 on the front end, and 14-5 on the back end).

One thing to watch is pace — despite all the athletes, the Thunder have played very deliberately so far. The Lakers should push the pace and see if they can get some easy buckets, try to make the young Thunder hurry and make mistakes. And that starts by forcing turnovers. Against Atlanta, the Lakers were able to use their length and some trapping defense to create turnovers. Portland forced 19 Thunder turnovers the other night, nine from Westbrook. The Lakers (who are built similarly to the Blazers in terms of personnel) should try to duplicate that feat.

Durant is going to get his points, but if Artest and whoever else guards him can turn him into a jump shooter he is far-less effective — Durant shoots 67% at the rim but no better than 25% so far this season from anywhere beyond that. Make him beat you with a jump shot. For the second game in a row, Artest’s defense could be key.

The Thunder have other options besides Durant. Russell Westbrook cannot be given free run into the paint, if he can penetrate and get rolling it will be a long night for the Lakers. That means the PGs need to play good defense, but also Bynum and DJ and the rest of the Lakers bigs need to make good rotations.

Do not let Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden shoot threes, they will drain them.

Where you can watch: This game tips off at 5 pm Pacific, on KCAL 9 here in Los Angeles. It is on NBATV nationally, thanks to the fans vote.

Kurt

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