Records: Lakers 53-18 (1st in West), Thunder 43-27 (6th in West, 9.5 behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (11th in NBA), Thunder 104.5 (17th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.2 (4th in NBA), 100.6 (5th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic
The Lakers Coming in: With a seven game winning streak in their pockets, the Lakers are building momentum. They just showed the Spurs what championship level defense looks like while also showing the rest of the league what their offense is capable of when the three ball is falling. The only thing that’s missing is their starting Center and their back up SF, but even that looks to be rectified soon. All in all, things are looking up for the Lakers and that is a dangerous proposition considering they’ve already got the second best record in the league and are (along with the Cavs) favorites to win the championship this season. Things aren’t perfect, but they rarely will be. All we can hope for is that when it’s needed, the Lakers can play to the level that their talent indicates they can. The final 24 minutes against the Spurs showed that this is indeed possible. So as this road trip continues against quality opponents, the onus is on the Lakes to continue to prove it.
The Thunder Coming in: Let’s just all pause for a second to acknowledge what the Thunder have become. Three seasons ago, they earned the 2nd pick in the draft with a 31-51 record. After drafting Kevin Durant with that #2 pick, the Sonics/Thunder proceeded to win 43 games over the next two seasons combined. And tonight, as we enter this contest, they’ve already matched that win total from the past two seasons with 43 wins in this years’ campaign alone. And they still have 12 games left in the regular season. Shrewd drafting from Sam Presti and an inspired hire of Scott Brooks to lead a young team of talented prospects has turned around an entire franchise. It’s a good time to root for the Thunder, for sure. And yes, it takes some luck (Kevin Durant is the type of player that can single handedly make an organization relevant) to reach the heights that this team has, but it also takes a vision and execution of a plan. The Thunder have done just that and only look to get better as the years pass.
As for what’s going on when the Thunder suit up to play the games, they’ve been a bit up and down lately. They’re 8-4 in March, but have only won two of their last five games. That includes a blowout at the hands of the Pacers (?!) and a close loss to the Spurs where Durant went for big numbers but his supporting cast couldn’t make enough shots to make SA pay when the Spurs double teamed KD late in the game. It’s games like those two that force fans to remember that despite the incredible growth of this team that they are still quite young. They make mistakes and don’t always know how to win the close games. But they seem to learn when they take their lumps, so it’s only a matter of time before this team starts to figure it all out.
Thunder Blogs: Daily Thunder is a really good site that deserves a visit. As I type this, they’ve put up a post that would make our own commenter The Dude Abides smile. Seriously, go check out the great work that Royce Young is doing.
Keys to game: The Thunder are an interesting team because they’ve assembled a fantastic bunch of complimentary pieces. They’ve got Durant and Westbrook who are very good with or without the ball, a do it all Forward in Green, complimentary defensive aces like Thabo and Ibaka (more on him later), and a smooth scoring bench player that helps the second unit continue to score the ball. So, tonight will be a test as the Lakers play a true team that has good chemistry and knows how to play off of each other and to their strengths.
On defense, slowing the Thunder offense means containing Kevin Durant. Which is easier said than done. But, in my opinion the Lakers have one of the best players to accomplish this. Ron Artest has usually done a pretty good job on Durant, making him work for every bucket. In the three match ups against the Lakers this season, Durant has averaged 24.3 points on 51.8% true shooting with 5.3 turnovers. But when comparing these numbers to his season averages of 29.7 ppg on 60.2% true shooting with 3.4 turnovers it’s easy to see the difference. Ron will need to continue to body KD all over the court and limit his length by closing down space and forcing him to shoot his jumper over an extended arm. Durant has a ton of weapons on offense, but Ron is an elite defender and has seen all of these weapons before. Ron’s physical strength and quick hands will be key tonight in making KD’s life difficult and we’ll see if Ron can continue his previous success against on of the league’s best wing players.
But Durant is not alone as an offensive threat for the Thunder. The other key player to slow down is Russ Westbrook. And considering that he’ll be guarded a lot (at least early) by Fisher, the Lakers look to be in some trouble. That said, there are ways to put the clamps on the young OKC point guard and it starts by treating him the same way that the Lakers have treated Tony Parker for a lot of his career. Westbrook (like Parker) is not a good three point shooter and is in constant attack mode to try and get to the rim – taking half of his 14 shots a game within 10 feet of the basket. So, Fisher (and every other Laker defender) needs to sag off Westbrook and bait him into shooting his inconsistent jumpshot. Go under every screen and in the half court treat him like he’s Rajon Rondo. If the Lakers can turn Russell into a distributor and limit his explosive forays into the paint it will go a long way to shutting him down. The other key to slowing Westbrook is to mark him on the offensive glass. He is the best offensive rebounding point guard in the league (averaging 1.6 a game) and he’s great at finding creases in the defense to find lanes to the rim to gain extra possessions. And considering that PG’s are rarely tasked with boxing out their own man, he’s very good at using his athleticism to get to the ball.
On offense, the Lakers face a team that has some good pieces in slowing down their key offensive threats. Thabo Sefolosha is the quick and long defender that has given Kobe trouble in the past. And then the Thunder also have back up Center Serge Ibaka that is a good defensive big. Since both of these defenders have the ability to slow our guys, the key to tonight (as it is most nights) is to run our offensive sets and get the OKC defense moving around and put in positions where they have to make tough choices. In recent games we’ve seen the Lakers move the ball much better and isolate Kobe on the weakside of the Triangle at the pinch post. This allows him to survey the floor, see the double team if it comes, while also putting him at a money position where his comfort level on offense is strong. Expect to see Kobe back down Thabo and try to work him on the block and also turn and face up from that 15 foot area so he can either rise up to shoot his jumper or use his variety of jab steps and feints to create a driving lane. As for Gasol, though Ibaka, Krstic, and Collison will all see time against him on defense, none of them can really handle his wide array of post moves. What I would like to see is Pau use his mid range jumper to set up his dribble drive and post games. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen Pau start to feel more comfortable shooting his 15-17 foot jumper and against this team knocking that shot down will go a long way in opening up the rest of his offensive game.
The other X factor in this contest is, as usual, Lamar Odom. Jeff Green is kind of an Odom-lite player that moves well and should do a better job than most of staying with LO off the dribble. However, where LO does have an advantage on Green is on the low block. If, as I hope, Gasol can knock down his mid-range jumper it should allow Odom more room to slash to the basket off the ball and post up more with space to operate against Green. With Bynum out, LO has really stepped up his game and tonight having him carry a bigger load on offense may be necessary.
Returning to the macro level, the Lakers must control their defensive glass tonight. In the three previous games against OKC, the Lakers gave up 14, 17, and 13 offensive rebounds. Those numbers are too high. I already mentioned marking Westbrook, but Ibaka is another guy that we really need to pay attention to tonight when securing defensive rebounds. The other key stat the Lakers need to pay attention to is turnovers. In the two games where the Lakers won by three points, the Lakers had 25 and 17 turnovers. In the game that was a blowout, the Lakers had 9. The Thunder is a team of athletes that will get out in transition and hurt you on the fast break when you just hand them the ball. If we can limit the give aways, we’ll cut down those chances and make the Thunder work for all their baskets.
Where you can watch: 5pm start time out West on KCAL. Also on ESPN Radio 710am.