Preview and Chat: The Oklahoma City Thunder

Darius Soriano —  February 27, 2011

Records: Lakers 41-19 (3rd in West), Thunder 36-21 (4th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.9 (2nd in NBA), Thunder 110.5 (10th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.1 (11th in NBA), Thunder 108.3 (16th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (out); Thunder: Kendrick Perkins (out)

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have won three straight and all of them impressive in their own way. The offense is rolling and the defense is getting stingier. And even though there are still some defensive rebounding issues (they surrendered 13 to the Clippers on Friday) a lot of those issues are related to the sheer volume of misses the D is forcing rather than the Lakers simply not doing their jobs. So, all in all, I’m pretty happy with where this team is coming out of the all-star break and only hope that the strong play continues.

Matt Barnes update: Barnes is so close to returning that he’s traveling with the team on this two game road trip. And while he’s not likely to play today against the Thunder, it’s still a possibility that he’ll suit up against the T-Wolves on Tuesday or against the Bobcats on Friday when the team returns to Los Angeles. Obviously, this is a great sign for the Lakers in these last 20 some-odd games. Not only because Barnes is a good player whose skill set is an added element to an already good team but because it allows the Lakers’ rotation on the wing to settle into what it was early in the year. Phil hasn’t shown a whole lot of trust in Luke Walton and has not gone to him consistently while Barnes is out. This has meant more Kobe at SF and more Shannon at SG. And while more Kobe and Shannon isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it has meant a heavier load on those guys and has somewhat exposed some of the inconsistencies in Shannon’s game as the year’s progressed. I’d much rather Barnes as an option rather than having to turn to Brown if he’s not playing as well as he can on any given night. The Clips game was a perfect example of this as Brown played a lot of minutes and had a good plus/minus number, but ultimately shot 4-14 and made some questionable decisions both in the open court and in the half court that were somewhat overshadowed by his spectacular finishes in the paint. Ultimately, I like Brown but still want every option available to Phil as we close down the regular season.

The Thunder Coming in: The Thunder are 1 up and 2 down since coming out of the all-star break, with the two losses coming to the contending Spurs and Magic. But the big news coming from this team isn’t how they’re playing or what they’ve done on the court, but rather what they did off it at the NBA’s trade deadline this past Thursday.

OKC traded starters Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. They also traded reserve wings James White and Morris Peterson to Charlotte for Nazir Mohammed. In these two deals the Thunder have added heaps of size and toughness to their roster while giving them an explosive bench scorer to shore up a 2nd unit that offers little punch besides James Harden. Overall, I’d have to say that the Thunder did quite well for themselves as they’ve traded the potential and upside of Green for the steadiness of Perkins.

And make no mistake, Perkins is a key player for them moving forward. Obviously, people will talk about Perkins’ post defense and his ability to physically control the paint on that side of the ball. But, I think he’s also got the potential to really help the Thunder offense. Not as a scorer, but as a screener. As it’s been for the entirety of Scott Brooks’ tenure as head man, the Thunder have run some of the more simplistic offensive sets in the league. The run simple P&R’s for Westbrook and a ton of pin down and cross screen actions for Kevin Durant in order to free him up to get off his jumper. Well, before Perkins those screens were being set by Kristc, Collison, and Ibaka – all three capable bigs, but none a bruiser that physical defenders couldn’t muscle through. Now, those screens will be set by Perkins. If Westbrook and Durant get just a second more of freedom coming off screens, OKC’s offense is going to improve a great deal, even with the drop off in true offensive skill when swapping Nenad for Kendrick.

There are drawbacks to this trade though. For one, Perkins is likely to be out at least 2 more weeks with his sprained MCL. So, there will be precious little time to integrate him with practice and game reps for the post-season push. Also, while the Thunder have been wanting to find more minutes at PF for Ibaka, he commits nearly 5 fouls per 36 minutes and suffered though 18 foul plagued minutes on Friday against the Magic. Plus, by trading away Green, the Thunder have essentially surrendered their depth at PF. Ibaka is now the only natural PF worth playing on that roster and OKC will now have to go “small” with KD at PF for stretches or go big with Collison/Nazr playing PF if Ibaka is out with foul issues or resting. Not the biggest problem to be sure, but something that will need to be addressed long term.

In the end though, the Thunder have set themselves up to be a better team this year and moving forward. Whether or not that carries them any further than what they would have originally gone this year remains to be seen but, if anything, they’ve injected even more life into a franchise on the rise. Which is saying something considering Durant and Westbrook are on this roster.

Thunder Blogs: Royce Young does a fantastic job covering this team over at Daily Thunder. You’d be doing yourself a favor by giving his site a visit.

Keys to game: The Lakers are quite familiar with how to beat the Thunder as they did so in 6 games last playoffs and have won the only regular season match up to this point. There will be no bigger factor to this game than pace and tempo with whichever team finding a way to play at the speed they prefer likely winning the game.

This means that the Lakers must play smart offensively in order to avoid promoting Thunder leak outs and open court chances. Going into the post will be a key today with Gasol and Bynum getting their chances to go at Ibaka and Collison respectively. The Bynum/Collison match up is one I’ll especially be watching because Nick is an underrated post defender that does well in battling for position while also expertly working half and full fronts on his man. He’s given Pau fits in the past with his ability to deny post entries and today it will be Bynum that has to deal. However, where Drew has the advantage over Pau is in his wider base that will allow him to more easily seal Collison and then make himself available for lobs over the top. Today may be the day that we see Drew get 10 points just off catches over the top that lead to easy baskets and FT’s after getting fouled.

As for Gasol, he’s got a different type of match up in Ibaka than he normally has in Green. Ibaka is a sturdy and athletic big man that is a capable shot blocker both on and off the ball. Pau will need to be patient today and flash all aspects of his offensive repertoire in order to keep Ibaka off balance. I hope to see Pau make his catches at the elbow and down within 15 feet of the hoop in order to set up his jumper (which he’s had going lately) or his quick drives to the hoop. If Pau can set up shop on that left mid-block most of the game, I see him being successful even if he is facing a better defender than the one that OKC has normally thrown his way at the beginning of the game.

Even though the big men should be featured, the Lakers can’t win this game by simply dumping the ball into the post. Because while that would likely keep the Thunder out of their running game, it won’t produce enough points to win. That means Kobe and the other Lakers wings will need to make shots. The key is what type of shots they get. All the Lakers wings must avoid long jumpers – especially those early in the clock. When the Lakers have had their most success against this team it’s been because Kobe hasn’t settled for his jumper and instead has drove the ball relentlessly into the paint for short jumpers and finishes right at the basket. He’ll need to have that same strategy today. As for Ron, Fisher, et al, they’ll not be able to avoid taking long jumpers but I’d hope that they come from the angle and top of the key rather than the corner (especially for Artest). This will promote better floor balance and allow the Lakers to better go after offensive rebounds while also transitioning back to the defensive end.

And believe me, defensive transition will be key. Even though I expect to see Kobe on Westbrook for most of this game, it doesn’t mean that OKC will abandon trying to push the ball up the Lakers backs to get early baskets in transition. Russ, KD, Harden, and Ibaka are all plus athletes that will run the floor and look to finish around, over, and through opponents. So, the first defensive key for the Lakers is to hustle back, build a wall and then recover back to their man.

In the half court, the Lakers need to be aware of the screen actions that the Thunder use and Artest will need to be on his game today in chasing KD off screens and then contesting his shots without fouling. Durant has traditionally struggled with Ron’s brand of physical, relentless D so Ron’s “A” game on that side of the ball would be a welcomed sight today. Where the Lakers can really help Ron is in helping off those screen actions and forcing other players not named Westbrook/Durant make shots. OKC does not have a good outside shooting team so LA can help off more than usual today and see if those other guys are up to the challenge.

Lastly (as if this preview wasn’t long enough), I’m looking for Odom to have a good game today. Normally he’s matched up with Ibaka on the 2nd unit but now that Serge is a starter LO will not have to deal with the length and springy legs that gave him so many problems last spring. This game could easily turn on an active Odom and I hope it does.

This game is important for a lot of reasons but none more than the fact that LA is trying to hold off OKC in the playoff seedings chase and because the Lakers want to continue their strong play. OKC will be loud today and the players and crowd will be hell bent on revenge. If the Lakers can pull out a win it’s just one more step in the right direction. Here’s hoping they get it.

Where you can watch: 11:30am start time on ABC. Also listen live at ESPN Radio 710am.

Darius Soriano

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