Records: Lakers 55-24 (2nd in West), Thunder 53-26 (4th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.0 (7th in NBA), Thunder 111.0 (6th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.0 (6th in NBA), Thunder 107.0 (15th 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, Kendrick Perkins
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks (out); Thunder: none
The Lakers Coming in: It’s been more than a week since the Lakers won a game. If that doesn’t tell you the state of the team, I’m not sure what will. They’ve been a sluggish group that’s not executed on offense while giving up too many rebounds and run outs on defense. Phil Jackson has begun openly criticizing his team in the media, going from statements about their lack of desire to play hard to them getting content about their playoff seeding when catching the Spurs became less likely. I’ve mentioned that fatigue has a lot to do with how they’ve played in the last 7 days, but in the end I don’t know if any reason matters as much as what the results of their lackluster play means moving forward. As we’ve discussed, the Lakers now have 3 games left on their schedule and they’re all important to securing a favorable position in the standings. Each game is one that has its challenges, but all are winnable. Of course, I’d like to see the Lakers win every game, regain some momentum, and lock down the #2 seed in the process. Even going 2-1 should achieve this goal, but the bigger point is for the Lakers to play better than what they have. And, the sooner the better.
The Thunder Coming in: OKC has won 3 in a row, including two message sending wins against their potential 1st round opponents in Denver. Going back further, they’ve only lost 4 games since the last time they played the Lakers (February 27th) and have been one of the best teams in the league since that point. Getting Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed has turned one of their biggest weaknesses (interior defense) into a strength, while the trade of Jeff Green and insertion of Ibaka into the starting line up has only further bolstered their paint protection. You add in the underrated Nick Collison to that mix and that’s four quality defensive bigs for the Thunder to throw at any team’s post players while also protecting the rim against driving wings.
This improved defense complements one of the better offenses in the league. As you can see from the rankings at the top of this post, OKC now boasts an offense as efficient as the Lakers (in terms of points per possession). Obviously their offense is anchored by Durant and Westbrook, but James Harden has also stepped up as a bench scorer as the trade of Green has allowed him more minutes and more responsibility on that side of the ball.
All of this adds up to a more balanced team that should certainly be taken seriously as the playoffs approach. Yes they’re young, but they’re also smart and hard working with a good coach. You add in a top shelf talent in Durant and a rising star in Westbrook and that’s a dangerous group. Whoever faces in the playoffs will have their hands full.
Thunder Blogs: Daily Thunder is an excellent site that has all the news and analysis on this team that you’d ever want.
Keys to game: To be honest, I have my concerns that the Lakers legs will be ready to face this team tonight. The Thunder will push the ball to get easy baskets in the open court and the Lakers have struggled to defend this exact attack in the past week in their losses to the Warriors, Jazz, and Blazers. In order to avoid getting run out on, the Lakers will need to control the tempo of this game and that starts on offense.
For several games now I’ve been asking for better execution within the Triangle and I’m still waiting. The Lakers must cut, screen, and move the ball with purpose. The Lakers’ advantage inside is not as big as it’s been against other teams, but the ball still must go into the hub of the Triangle so the Laker bigs can get their touches and initiate the offense. Long jumpers early in the clock will be the death of the Lakers today, so patient probing of the D with entry passes and strong off ball movement will be needed. One set I’m quite interested in seeing that the Lakers haven’t run of late is their pressure release action that creates a high low with their bigs. When Pau is weak side and Bynum is in the post, I want to see him flash into the elbow area when the post entry is denied with ‘Drew then ducking in to the post for clean catches. I’d also like to see more cross screen actions to bring Gasol and Bynum to the ball side so they can catch the ball on the move rather than always having to bang against their man to establish position. Considering the Thunder (especially Collison and Ibaka) like to front the post, these screen and high/low actions should be open as they actively try to circle the post and deny entry.
Even with an inside-out attack, the Lakers still must focus on transition D. Westbrook loves to push the ball and he has no fear in running up defenders’ backs and attacking the hoop. The Laker bigs must get back on the D and the Laker wings must pick Westbrook up early in order to slow his momentum and make him bring the ball out and set up the Thunder offense. Even when that does happen though, the Lakers must keep their spacing discipline on D to ensure that Russ doesn’t get clean driving lanes to the rim. I fully expect Kobe to give Westbrook the Rondo-treatment by laying off him and tempting the mid-range jumper but don’t be surprised to see him turn that shot down in order to bull his way to the rim if the gap is there. The Laker bigs must be ready to help and challenge shots when he turns the corner eyeing the rim.
Slowing Durant is the other key and that will mostly fall on Ron Artest. Durant has struggled against Ron but that doesn’t mean that we can just rely on that to occur again today. So even though Ron will body KD all over the court and make his life difficult moving off screens and when isolated, the other Lakers will need to help when KD breaks free and has that open look. Especially important will be the Laker big men assisting Ron when their men set screens for Durant. Perkins and Ibaka are better screeners than Krstic and Green, so Ron is much more likely to be picked off by these bigs than he has in past match ups. When this occurs, the Laker bigs must step out to slow the entry to KD so that Ron has time to recover and contest the shot or bottle KD up so that he ends up working in isolation or forced to pass. A wrinkle to getting KD the ball that the Lakers need to be prepared for is the Westbrook/Durant P&R. The Thunder have been using this action more to try and force switches and get a smaller man on KD so he can just shoot over the top. Luckily, I expect the Lakers to have Kobe on Russ so this minimizes the threat of this action but if the Lakers aren’t looking for this they’ll likely give up some good looks in the process of adjusting.
In the end, there are other factors to look out for today but I’m just most interested in seeing the Lakers play hard, possessing the energy and focus they’ve lacked of late. The Thunder are a true challenge and a team that LA may see in the playoffs so a win today could serve as a strong reminder of each team’s position in this match up. Here’s to the Lakers bringing what’s been missing of late to the table tonight.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Fox Sports. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.