Preview and Chat: The Oklahoma City Thunder

Phillip Barnett —  January 17, 2011

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Records: Lakers 30-12 (2nd in West), Thunder 27-13 (3rd in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.0 (1st in NBA), Thunder 110.0 (8th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.0 (9th in NBA), Thunder 107.9 (17th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff (out); Thunder: None

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers went into yesterday afternoon’s hallway battle with the Clippers winners of seven straight only to see their streak snapped by a young, upstart squad that has been playing very well recently. Tonight, the Lakers face the epitome of young, upstart squads in the NBA in the Oklahoma City Thunder. Of course, the Lakers would have loved to have won their previous game, but they’re coming into this game with the Thunder with an 8-2 record since the return of Andrew Bynum.

It’s hard to be upset with the Lakers recent play, and the improvement began with Kobe’s sudden increase in offensive efficiency. During the course of the Lakers’ last five games, Kobe has shot 48 percent while scoring 26.6 points on 19 shots per game. Further more, he’s averaged 6.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists during those same games. Ron Artest, interestingly, has also seen his offense take a dramatic rise. While 11 points per game during his last five is nothing to write home about, he has shot 50 percent from three and 44 percent from the field – all well above his, respective, 8.1/39.6 3FG%/ 40.7FG% season numbers.

Also, with the increase in some specific offensive areas, the Lakers’ collective defensive efforts have been fantastic, headlined by giving up only 57 points to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. During their seven game winning streak, the Lakers only allowed an average of 88.1 points per game – which would place them at the top of the league. Andrew Bynum, since his return, has done a great job at challenging shots and allowing parameter defenders to play aggressive with limited consequences. He’s taken the burden of guarding opposing teams’ centers from Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, and the team has reaped the benefits.

The Thunder Coming in: The last time we saw the Thunder, Kobe air balled a potential series clinching shot that Pau Gasol grabbed and proceeded to put in to close out the Thunder, in Oklahoma City, after an extremely fun, intense sixth game. Much like the Lakers, the Thunder are coming into this match up with their team from last very much intact and playing some of the best basketball of their respective season. The Thunder didn’t begin the season scorching, much like a lot of people expected them to, but they’re now winners of four straight and seven of their last 10, with the current third spot in the Western Conference.

They’ve been led by Kevin Durant, who is well on his way to a second straight scoring title; and Russell Westbrook, who is playing the point guard position as well as anyone in the league. With Durant’s ability to score at will, Westbrook’s inhuman quickness and the team’s collective athleticism, they’ve been able to collect some recent wins against some very good teams, Orlando and Dallas the most recent.

Thunder Blogs: Everything Royce is doing over at Daily Thunder is fantastic. Make sure you go check them out.

Keys to the Game: The only thing different about this year’s Thunder team and last season’s is the added year of experience they’ve gained. This is a team that knows its identity and will go out and play their game, which means they’re going to run early and often. If the Lakers want to win this game, they have to play much like they did early in the third quarter against the Clippers. They have to keep the pace slow, keep their turnover rate down and force guards to shoot over the length of the Lakers. The Thunder are not a great three point shooting team (33 percent as a unit), with James Harden and Kevin Durant as their only real threats from behind the arch. The Lakers have to keep guys like Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor out of the paint in the half court.

Offensively, the Lakers must be patient, but quick. When the Lakers start rushing things is when they have unforced errors that lead to turnovers. When they start moving into their 1-on-1 individualistic offense, the team efficiency declines. So quick ball movement, but patient within their offense will keep this younger and smaller group off of their heels. Too many turnovers or too many missed shots could prove to be the demise of the Lakers tonight. As we saw during that first round match up last season, if you give these kids an inch, they’ll take a foot. A heavy dose of Gasol-Bynum-Odom is going to be necessary against such an undersized team. Of course, this is much easier said than done, but it can be done.

Where you can watch:  7:30pm start time on TNT. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710am.

Phillip Barnett