Preview & Chat: The Oklahoma City Thunder

Kurt —  December 22, 2009

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Records: Lakers 22-4 (1st in West) Thunder 13-13 (9th in West)
Offensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 107.8 (14th in league), Thunder 105.3 (21st in league)
Defensive points per 100 possessions: Lakers 98.7 (1st in league) Thunder 104.7 (7th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Jeff Green, Kevin Durant, Nenad Krstic

The Lakers Coming in: Bill Bridges made a great point in the comments regarding the Kevin Pelton story on the Lakers defense.

What he doesn’t mention is that for the first time in this Lakers stint, Phil has taken over the direct management of the defense. Kurt Rambis was previously the defensive coordinator.

Much as Phil is not given credit for the offense, as the triangle is the product of Tex’s genius, he is given little credit for his defense*. His defensive schemes transformed the Bulls to be the best defensive team in modern history. The last 3 peat Bulls team were the best defensive team over the 3-year stretch.

This team’s defense is less robotic and pre-programmed as last year’s SSZ looked. This team, much like on offense, reads the offense and reacts. Much like the legs of an octopus that extends and contracts, it really does look like there are more than 5 players on defense at times.

If they keep this up, their defensive rating of 98.7 will be the better than any of the Bull’s team’s and the best the league has seen since the 94/95 Knicks who basically mugged the opposition. (Their rating was 98.2)

While we like Kurt Rambis, Phil Jackson is a defensive genius and his touch on this team shows.

*10 titles. Offensive innovator. Defensive genius. Best W/L % in history – by far. And 1 coach of the year.

The Thunder Coming in: Thunder GM Sam Pristi is killing it. The Thunder have one of the best young rosters in the Association and today added rookie point guard Eric Maynor from the Jazz (plus Matt Harpring’s contract, which will save the Jazz a lot of tax money, which means not having to look at trading Boozer for economic reasons). What did the Thunder give up? The rights to a Peter Fehse, a European player drafted in 2002 but who has never set foot on these shores (save for a vacation).

Think about it: The top concern with the Thunder roster is that Russell Westbrook is not really a point guard, that he should be a two. That has been evident in recent Thunder losses. Maynor is a true point guard with a lot of potential — he had a 3-1 assist to turnover ratio in Utah, was playing about 15 minutes a game and playing smart, steady basketball for a rookie. His outside shot needs work, but this is a great fit that gives the Thunder a lot of options.

However, that does not help them tonight, as he will not suit up. As of today, the Thunder are at .500 and sit two games out of the last playoff spot in the West. This will be pretty much how it goes for this young team all season, as it scraps to get one of the bottom playoff spots in the West. It’s part of the growing process for the young team. (Of course, if they were in the East with that record they’d be the 5 seed.)

Tonight is the first of a back-to-back for the Thunder, who get the Suns tomorrow night. They are struggling right now, having lost four of five.

Blog and a request: Check out Daily Thunder.

Also, reader here Albert emailed me saying he is looking for a authentic yellow Kobe #8 jersey. Not signed, just an authentic throwback. Ideas? Put them in the comments or email me.

Keys to game: This is the third meeting this year between the teams, with the Lakers winning the first two. In the first game the Lakers were a turnover machine and that kept the game close and sent it to overtime, where the Lakers won. In the second game the Lakers dominated from the first quarter on and could seem to do no wrong, with Kobe even hitting a H-O-R-S-E shot.

One lesson there is that the Lakers need to take care of the ball — the Thunder create turnovers on 17.1% of opponents possessions, fifth best in the league. They are long and athletic and can jump the passing lanes, then when they get the steal they are hard to stop in transition. But take away those easy baskets from them and they struggle to score.

Ron Artest and his defense have been a thorn in the side of Kevin Durant the last two meetings (although Pau Gasol may get some time on him tonight). The Lakers got Durant in foul trouble early last meeting and that was a key. Durant is 17 of 53 (32%) in his last three games. The stat to know is this: When Durant is held to under 20 points, the Thunder are 0-5.

One other guy to watch, in part because the Thunder are using him more, is James Harden (ASU Shoutout Ty!). With the second unit he gets a lot of looks in the halfcourt sets, coming off screens or in pick and roll situations on the wing. The guy has a well-rounded game and can do a lot, the Lakers need to control him when he enters.

This could be a sandwich game for the Lakers — first game back after a long road trip, with the hype of Christmas day and Cleveland two days away. OKC is too good to just look past, if the Lakers do that they will get burned.

Where you can watch: Fox Sports here in So Cal, NBATV nationally, tip off at 7:30, and don’t forget ESPN 710 radio for those of you in your car (or those who don’t believe that new fangled television fad is going to last).