Preview and Chat: The Oklahoma City Thunder

Emile Avanessian —  April 22, 2012

Records: Lakers: 40-23 (3rd in the West), Thunder: 46-17 (2nd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 106.1 (11th in the NBA), Thunder: 109.8 (2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 104.3 (13th in the NBA), Thunder: 102.9 (9th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: none

The Lakers Coming In: With 96 minutes of ball remaining in a breakneck regular season, and just one day between the end of Game 66 and the beginning of the postseason, veteran playoff-bound squads – particularly those with a nicked-up superstar – are likely engaging in some late-stage R&R. Not in Lakerland, where the Purple and Gold – full complement of talent now in tow – are hustling to get back up to speed while locked in a tooth-and-nail, cross-hallway battle for playoff position and a division title.

After a seven-game absence, Kobe Bryant and his presumably less sore shin returned to action on Friday night in San Antonio. After a slow start in which he made just two of six shots, Kobe found his footing, finishing 7-of-12 from the field for 18 points in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, much of the remainder of the starting five – be it Pau Gasol (4-10 FG, 11 points in 30 minutes), Andrew Bynum (TWO rebounds, just days after grabbing 30 against the same squad) or Ramon Sessions (5 points on 2-of-9 in 24 minutes) – fell well short of the standards they’d set in the Mamba’s absence. With Tim Duncan and Tony Parker scoring an efficient 41 and Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Daniel Green and Gary Neal connecting on 80% (8-of-10) of their 3-point attempts, I’m not sure any team has the bullets in its gun to down the Spurs, but at this time of year, there’s really no excuse for putting forth that lackluster an effort on the boards and offering so little resistance in the midst of a third quarter blitz.

Looking forward, the Lakers welcome to Staples an OKC squad that’s given them fits in both meetings this season – running the Lakers ragged in a 15-point home win on February 23, then overcoming a brutal start in L.A. on March 29 and riding Russ Westbrook’s 36 to a nine-point win on the Lakers’ home floor.

The Thunder Coming In: The Thunder enter Sunday’s showdown in a situation similar to that of Lakers, trailing San Antonio by one-half game for the West’s top spot. Though they’ve won four of five, OKC is hardly firing on all cylinders. Since April 1, they’ve not only failed (in five opportunities) to notch a victory against playoff-bound opposition, but have fallen short of the 100-mark on each occasion and only once connected on better than 45% of their field goal (45.2% v. Memphis on 4/2) and 32% of their 3-point attempts (46.2% on 4/11 v. Clippers).

Rightfully, all eyes with be on OKC’s dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but it’s the remainder of the roster, and their ability to neutralize the Lakers trio of stars. In the paint, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins (averaging 17 points, 19.5 rebounds and 5 blocks in the previous two meetings), with glue guy extraordinaire Nick Collison off the bench, will lock horns with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, whom they’ve “held” to a combined 37 points and 20 rebounds per game.

Meanwhile, in the backcourt, Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden will look to extend Kobe’s struggles against the Thunder. In the two previous meetings, Kobe has managed a combined 47 points on an awful 14-of-49 (28.6%) from the field, due in large part to the length and athleticism of OKC’s defenders.

Thunder Blogs: For the latest news and insight on the crew from OKC, check out the excellent work done by Daily Thunder and Welcome To Loud City.

Keys to the Game: Win the battle of the bigs. It’s tough to imagine Kobe hitting the floor in full facilitator mode, but he will do well to work off of his elite duo of seven-footers on the inside. Conversely, I’d look for the Thunder to pack the middle in an effort to entice not just Kobe, but all of the Lakers perimeter players (I am including Gasol here) to abandon the inside-out approach in favor of a jump-shot heavy approach. Be it via strong entry passes or dribble penetration, a top priority for the Lakers on Sunday will be to knife into the paint and take advantage of the defensive aggressiveness of the OKC bigs to earn frequent trips to the foul line and frequent, foul-induced trips to the bench for Perk and Ibaka (especially Ibaka, with whom on the floor, the Lakers’ offensive efficiency drops to just 86.7, compared with 108.6 without; great stat from Matt Moore, via Twitter).

Additionally, and thanks to Darius for his great input here, there are two areas of great importance. First, the Lakers’ ability to deal with Westbrook in the pick and roll will be vital. In the teams’ last match up, Russ was dialed in from mid-range, which, combined with the Lakers’ bigs (namely Bynum) sagging below the screens proved deadly. It will be interesting to see if the Lakers maintain this approach on Sunday, or tweak their scheme by having the bigs play the screen a bit more aggressively. This is not to say that the bigs will must hedge hard, but by playing a bit higher on the screen, Westbrook will have to deal with a defender – one prepared to contest the mid-range J – earlier, and perhaps be forced into more rushed decisions.

Finally, and every bit as importantly, the Lakers must get back in transition. It is vital that the Lakers effectively “build a wall” against Westbrook’s penetration, while also staying with the Thunder players filling the lanes. The keys here will be better floor balance and the perimeter guys prioritizing transition D over crashing the offensive glass. With Pau and Bynum – two of the best in the biz – already attacking the offensive boards, MWP and Matt Barnes will be far better served in working to limit OKC’s easy buckets by limiting run out opportunities.

Whether it ultimately results in a victory remains to be seen, but with the Clippers nipping at their heels, a possible second round matchup looming and third career scoring title in the balance (27.9 per game, v. Durant’s 27.8; yeah, you’re right, Kobe probably doesn’t care at all about that), look for Kobe and the Lakers to ratchet up the intensity on Sunday afternoon.

Where you can watch: 12:30 PM start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Emile Avanessian


224 responses to Preview and Chat: The Oklahoma City Thunder

  1. So, how many games do you think MWP will be suspended? I hope Harden is okay.

  2. Cdog, could not have said it better re: the team defense, this is mostly why Lamar finished games before instead of Andrew.

    I know there was no Harden, but things suddenly seem brighter if Hill is going to be a regular contributor.

    At least Ron-Ron is only really needed vs. Pierce and Durant, although Ebanks did allright today.

  3. That game was nuts. Must be pretty cool seeing 10th and 11th guysplaying with heart and energy. But if Hill and Ebanks have to get big minutes in the playoffs, Lakers are in trouble.

    OKC gave this game away. Specifically, Durant and Westbrook. Durant won’t get that many open j’s at their next practice. Westbrook – just reckless. What a game by Kobe. Total liability for three quarters, then just kills it.

    Andrew Bynum – I really don’t get it. Maybe he’d have a different attitude if he had played for the Nets or the Raptors for a few years before being lucky enough to play for a perennial contender. Knucklehead, and a terrible teammate.

    And then Artest. He shouldn’t see the first round. Recidivist, nasty, intentional, and then he played dumb afterward. If this was hockey, Cole Aldrich would’ve suplexed Kobe.

  4. How about some praise for Blake? All 3 of his three’s were huge and he also hit those two FT’s in the end.

    Blake has deserved some of the criticism he’s received through the year. But he’s played well since Kobe’s injury and he stepped up big today.

  5. What a great win by the Lakers. Loved how they fought back. They will clinch the Pacific Division and #3 seed if Clippers lose another game or the Lakers beat the Kings in the last game of the year.

  6. I hope Mike Brown plays Hill from now on. Gotta give credit to Blake, he stepped up big time.

  7. Great comeback win for the Lakers. Great games by Blake, Ebanks, and Hill. When looking at Hill and Ebanks it shows the Lakers do have some young talent. They just need more playing time. Next season with a full training camp and more practice time I expect Devin and Jordan to pay real dividends.

    With that said I still don’t know what to make of this team. Some nights they look like they can be the best team in the league. Many other nights they look lost and apathetic. After getting blown out by the Spurs Friday I won’t get too over joyous about this win. I am glad they got it, but I will stop short of saying they are on their way.

  8. Finally Brown plays Hill.

    This likely makes OKC the 2 and the Lakers the 3.

  9. What a classic! This is why I love the Lakers, through good and bad, up and down. Can’t ask for more than this. And Kobe is unlike anyone I have ever watched play. Not trying to compare him to MJ or anyone else — he is simply unique.

  10. Bynum -18

    Hill +27

    Gibson finishes games for chicago all the time. maybe brown should play hill late games for defense

  11. if all 3 teams, lakers, clippers and grizzlies are 41-25, who will be #3-5?

  12. Lets compare who contributes more to the following categories between Jordan Hill and Bynum:

    –Team Speed – Hill
    –Transition Defense – Hill
    –Pick and Roll Defense – Hill
    –Hustle – Hill
    –One on one offense – Bynum
    –Teammate – Hill
    –Full utilization of Pau and Kobe’s playmaking skills – Hill
    –Ball Movement – Hill
    –Salary – Bynum

  13. So for every 100 “Mike Brown is a bad coach comment” I’ll give one “Mike Brown is a good coach” comment. The Lakers won because…

    1) Mike Brown played his best back up big man off the bench. Jordan Hill has been a solid NBA PF his entire three year career. Nothing new here.

    2) Mike Brown decided to stick with the hot lineup for the fourth quarter and both OT periods. Many coaches including Phil Jackson would re insert his “closing” lineups for crunch time and any OTs. Mike Brown couldn’t have been too wrong as the Lakers eventually won in two extra periods.

    3) Mike Brown moved Steve Blake to his most natural position of spot up shooter. With Ramin on the bench and Kob Bryant def not 😉 … Brown made Kobe the triangle PG and let Blake play of the ball. Mike Brown is making all of the proper rotational adjustments all at the last few games of the year. Wow. Hmmmm…. Interesting…. I dont think its a cooincidemce. He had the bigger picture in mind all along.

  14. oh… And I would advice against the few “trolls” on this site. To even rea

  15. Hill said that he had to learn the defense and the team system. He was not rushed in because the need for his input was less needed as compared to Sessions. MB phoned Hill after the Spurs game, so MB knows something about Bynum that we don’t.

    Sessions has done an incredible job being thrown in the fire the way that he has. I appreciate his willingness to learn the plays by spending all of his spare time learning the Lakers players and the teams offense. Does he have a ways to go to learn their defense. Yes, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. So give him time. I’m sure that he’s learned that to be an NBA starting PG he’s going to have to play defense.

    Great game by Pau, Hill, Ebanks, and Blake. Nothing for Kobe as he just does what he does each and every game.

  16. Did Aaron collapse from stress in the middle of his post? ;-

  17. @213 the Lakers, because they won the season series against both teams.

  18. AFAIK, the Clippers hold the tiebreaker against the Grizzlies, and the Lakers hold the tiebreaker against both. If they all go 41-25, the Lakers are the 3, the Clippers are the 4, and the Grizzlies are the 5.

    If the Clippers lose on Wednesday night in New York or Tuesday in Atlanta (I am assuming they will win tonight), the Lakers will not need to win the Sacramento game.

  19. Whatta game! The Laker combo that finished that game showed tons of heart and just out and out hustled their butts off. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the Lakers outwork a team and want it more than their opponent. I loved it!

    2 guys who take tons of criticism from Laker Nation came up big today. I’ve got to give props to Steve Blake and Mike Brown. Steve was all over the court hustling and hit some huge shots. He was instrumental in the 4th quarter comeback. And Mike Brown had the good common sense to nail Andrew Bynum’s azz to the bench during crunch time. I know it’s a small sample size, but Jordan Hill played a fantastic game. Brown may finally have a club to use to get Bynum’s attention. If Jordan can play well, Mike can ration out Bynum’s playing time according to how Drew is playing. If Drew can’t muster the effort on defense, Brown now has a viable alternative in Hill.

    Kobe, Kobe, Kobe!! I thought he set the tone early with his defense on Westbrook. He simply would not allow Russell to have his way and it allowed the Lakers to hang close in the 1st half. Kobe held Russ way below his season average, but according to Jeff VG, it was Thabo who was so so outstanding on defense. Kobe’s defense and his outstanding late game heroics showed once again why he has been and still is one of the great two way players of all time.

    Of course, the game was marred by the ugly, inexplicable elbow that Metta threw. He hurt his team as badly as he hurt Harden. Peace is sure to be suspended at a time when the Lakers need all their chambers loaded. A total meltdown.

    I hope the Hornets take out some of their season long frustrations on the Clippers tonight and knock Paul and co. into the fourth seed. That’ll allow the Lakers to disregard the last game in Sacto and give the team a chance to rest Pau and Kobe for about a week before the Big Show begins.


  20. It really ticks me off that Devin Ebanks has not been able to find some playing time this season. He did a great job defending Durant. His offensive game is still raw but I’m sure that is because of a lack of opportunity and not because of a lack of talent.

    Brown and the Laker braintrust really had the chance to infuse some youth and athleticism into The Show this year. They missed the boat on Gerald Green and have allowed Ebanks and Morris and GLock to languish on the bench all year. And while Sessions was a much needed upgrade at the point, I’m just greedy enough to wish they could have gotten the Beasley trade done as well. Being so conservative cost the team a chance to add some youth and athleticism to an aging crew.

  21. I think that Sessions’ shoulder is really giving him problems, and it really shows on the defensive end. Ramon is what I call “pick-shy”. He has trouble dealing with screens, especially from a goon like Kendrick Perkins who the refs allow to play like an offensive lineman. Ramon needs to bulk up his upper body in the off season. Running into those type of screens is no fun.

  22. People call out Aaron, Aaron calls out trolls, trolls… divine justice.

  23. Bynum pisses me off to no end…I hope he felt like the jackoff he is watching EFFORT win a game…24 and gives the effort of a 60 year old…bum

  24. Aaron

    Coming from the guy who said Andrew he a all time great and Spurs will be out in the first round now Brown is coach of the year.

    He had no choice today. Ron had a brain cramp so he had to use Eubanks and Andrew was again loafing.

    Better question would be why did Eubanks get 20 DNP and why was Hill sitting and growing his hair on the bench the last month.

    Lakers won because they finally played hard with 3 reserves. Not because Brown is Popovich smart.

    If we lose that game with Andrew and Sessions sitting for 22 minutes while bench guys burn out then what is Brown then? Mad scientist.