This is the series the Lakers aren’t supposed to win. The Thunder are younger and more athletic. They have star power at the top of their roster and a deep bench to compliment them. They’re hungry, determined, and a team that’s been on the cusp for long enough that they’re now primed for a deep run. If you’re a betting man, the Thunder is the way to go; they’re the chalk in this equation.
So, the Lakers should just forfeit right?
Since we know that’s not happening…
The Lakers aren’t supposed to win, but they surely can. It will take several things working in their favor – even more so than in other series based off OKC’s stature as one of the elite teams – but we’ve known that since the last few weeks of the regular season where we all started looking ahead to playoff match ups. The fact remains, however, that while there are several factors in this match up that distinctly favor the Thunder, the Lakers have some things going for themselves as well.
In that vain, here’s our roadmap for what the Lakers can do on both ends to try and take this series or in the very least, make it as competitive as possible. Our first part deals with the Thunder’s offense…
* Tempo, tempo, tempo.
Just like the Nuggets series, much of the Lakers success will depend on keeping the Thunder out of transition situations where their superior athleticism can shine through for easy baskets. In the Thunder’s two regular season wins they scored 21 and 25 fast break points, while in their lone loss they only scored 18 (and that was in a double OT game). The Lakers must change ends well, build a wall on defense, and keep the Westbrook/Durant/Harden trio from getting shots at the rim against a defense that isn’t yet set. Much of this will depend on a patient offensive approach by L.A., but even more so about keeping floor balance and maintaining discipline as the Thunder look to break out. The Thunder want to play fast (5th fastest pace in the league this year), but they won’t always force the issue the way the Nuggets did; they won’t just fire up shots in transition to avoid playing half court basketball. If the Lakers can make them set up and run their O, they can experience some success.
That said, guarding this team in the half court will not be easy. In their starting lineup, Durant and Westbrook offer individual challenges for whoever guards them.
*The three headed perimeter monster.
The assumption is that Ron will guard Durant whenever they share the floor and, as in year’s past, the formula remains the same for dealing with the league’s leading scorer. Ron must body him off the ball to make his catches as difficult as possible. Outright ball denials will be nearly impossible, but making him catch the ball at a standstill or when going away from the basket should be the ultimate goal. KD is brilliant curling off screens and getting into positions where he’s an immediate threat so Ron will not only need to try to knock him off his preferred path, but will need help from his teammates to obstruct passing angles until he can recover.
But KD will get the ball and once he does is when the next effort begins. Durant is such a skilled scorer because his jumper must be respected well beyond the three point line. He’s more than capable of knocking down the deep jumper both off catch and shoots and off pull ups, so Ron will need to crowd him off the catch and respect his pull up while also not getting beat off the bounce with KD’s improved handle. Preferably, as a guideline, I’d like to see Ron force KD left and play him for the pull up jumper when going in that direction while playing him to drive all the way to the rim when going right. Of course KD’s attack is more varied than this but this is a good place to start. Ron will need to use his quick hands to bother Durant’s handle and then his length to contest shots off the dribble.
As for Westbrook, it remains to be seen if Kobe gets full time defensive duty but I’d hope that he does. Westbrook has a speed advantage over every potential Laker defender but will not have a size and strength advantage over Kobe like he will over Sessions or Blake. And it’s those latter two qualities that allow him to turn drives that could be 15 feet pull up jumpers into shots in the paint that compromise a defense. This can’t be stressed enough: the Lakers lose this series easily if Westbrook is an efficient scorer and he’s most efficient when playing at the rim. During the regular season Russ didn’t shoot well (overall) against the Lakers in any area of the floor but he shot his best percentage at the basket and was at 40% or lower from every incremental distance farther from the hoop. The Lakers must turn him into a jump shooter and the best way to do that is to put size on him, go under screens, and then recover back to challenge his pull up J. The deeper the jumper the better but his disrupting his rhythm is the most important factor here. As he showed in the 2nd match up vs. the Lakers, he can get hot from any spot on the floor once he starts to feel it so the real key is to not let him find that groove.
Of course, if slowing Westbrook and Durant was all you had to do to beat the Thunder the Lakers wouldn’t be in such a tough spot. James Harden probably offers the most difficult challenge defensively because his game is the most unorthodox and his effectiveness comes in a variety of ways. He’s a tremendous P&R ball handler, will look to set up his teammates when he’s over played, can score off the jumper or going to the rim, plus is a lefty that always finds a way to get to his dominant hand with crafty Euro-steps and crossovers. Harden is OKC’s most natural playmaker and will be the focal point of their second unit. Who the Lakers put on him is just as important as how the Lakers defend his myriad of offensive moves and, as of now at least, I’ve no clue who the best option is.
Kobe has shown that he struggles when Harden goes to a P&R heavy attack because of the way he uses angles when coming off the pick. Kobe often switches these screens because Harden is great at using an angled dribble to get to a spot on the floor where recovering is more difficult. Barnes is similar to Kobe in this regard. The best option then, becomes Ron but he can’t guard Harden and Durant at the same time. How this plays out is one of the bigger keys to the series because if Harden becomes pedestrian, the Thunder become overly dependent on the the Russ/KD duo. This isn’t a *bad* problem for most teams but I’ve long thought that as great as those two are – and they are GREAT – they’re also the types of players that thrive doing what they do best and start to struggle when those things are taken away. The fact they can get those things going so often is one of the reasons they are so great but I digress. Harden, though, does many things well and can show a defender 10 different looks on 10 different possessions, each one a part of a wide-net arsenal. While KD and Russ will get the accolades, this series could turn on how effective Harden is.
- While most of what the Thunder do is based off the above players, we mustn’t forget the little things that make this team successful. The Lakers must be aware of Ibaka on pick and pops. He’s the guy that can score 16 points on 12 shots, all of them open jumpers/dives to the rim as the defense scrambles around the perimeter trying to slow the big name threats. Serge’s range is good to 18 feet and his athleticism aids him in attacking the paint and scoring off O-Rebs and simple cuts.
- Kendrick Perkins must also be accounted for, but in a different way. He’s going to set bone crushing screens (sometimes illegal ones) to try and free his guys up. He’s a key cog in that players don’t get open without him knocking defenders away. The Lakers bigs must help on these picks by hedging well (when they’re on ball) and by giving space for guys to fight through (when they’re off the ball). The bigs must also position themselves where they can be helpers on passes when guys want to curl into the paint or flash into open space off these screens.
- Thunder wings not yet named (besides Thabo) are in the game to shoot open three pointers. Fisher, Cook, and Ivey can all hit the three ball. They’ll camp weak side, wait for attention to go to their more heralded teammates and then stab you in the liver with a dagger three pointer. The Lakers must make all of these guys put the ball on the floor and finish off the dribble. As Lakers’ fans we’re all quite familiar with Fisher’s ability to hit playoff three pointers. He and his pals must be turned into two point shooters that finish while being harassed.
- The Thunder will go small. Durant will play some PF and the Lakers will need to guard him with a capable defender when this happens. Rather than counter with a small lineup, I’ll be interested in seeing if the Lakers simply put one of their big men (Hill, Gasol) on one of the aforementioned wings and hope that their superior length can be enough to close and contest.