Preview and Chat: The Oklahoma City Thunder

Darius Soriano —  December 7, 2012

Records: Lakers 9-10 (8th in the West), Thunder 15-4 (2nd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.4 (5th in the NBA), Thunder 110.9 (2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 99.3 (8th in the NBA), Thunder 99.5 (9th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Chris Duhon, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Dwight Howard
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefalosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Steve Blake (all out); Thunder: none

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers haven’t won two games in a row since November 18th and 20th against the Rockets and Nets. In the 8 games since, they’re 3-5 and have lost consecutive games twice. Yet, on the season they still have the 5th best offense, 8th best defense, and 6th best efficiency differential. When they win they do so by an average of nearly 18 points and when they lose that margin falls to only 8. What does all this means coming into a game where they won their last game, but face  one of the best teams in the league? Expect any outcome and you could end up being right. Because in terms of figuring out this team, the best I can do is that they seem to play different than I’d expect in nearly every game.

The Thunder Coming in: There’s no need to guess what the Thunder are — they’re an elite team. They lead the league in scoring differential and have won 6 consecutive games. They’re led by two players who could both make first team all-NBA, one of whom is a legit MVP candidate.

Kevin Durant is on his way to having a 50/40/90 shooting campaign while posting career highs in rebounds and assists. He’s handling the ball more, creating easier shots for himself and his teammates, playing very good defense, and does it so smoothly you’d think he’s barely trying on some possessions. His partner in crime, Russell Westbrook, is someone you’d never mistake for not trying. He’s bouncing off the walls like Ray Liotta in the last 30 minutes of Goodfellas. Every move he makes is with purpose. His drives and finishes at the rim are as ferocious as they are spectacular. His pull up jumper is becoming more of a weapon and his three point shot is improving as well. There are nights where he is still out of control, but he’s such an amazing athlete he finds ways to make a positive impact even when he highjacks too many possessions. He’s just that good.

Of course, one of the reasons Russ and KD are doing more is because James Harden was traded to the Rockets before the season. In his place is the ever efficient Kevin Martin, who is back to scoring the ball well and putting up the types of numbers that had the stats-based community in love with him for all those years. With Martin scoring well, Ibaka progressing in all facets of the game, and Perkins…well…scowling, the Thunder look to be just as good and probably better than last year’s version that went to the Finals.

Thunder Blogs: Daily Thunder is a fantastic site that you should check out for all things Thunder.

Keys to game: There are probably a dozen or so things the Lakers need to do well to win this game. And they need to to them all while holding down a Thunder team that is excellent at home and currently rolling over opponents nightly.

Rather than focusing on all of those things, here are a few that I think will mean the most towards the Lakers getting the win:

*Will Kobe guard Westbrook and, if he does, will he also have the energy to be a focal point of the Lakers’ offense on the other end? This could be the biggest factor in the game. If Kobe can limit the Thunder’s 2nd best player while still scoring and distributing efficiently, the Lakers have a real shot tonight irrespective of all the other storylines coming in.

*The next most important match up isn’t Dwight/Perkins or Ron/KD, but Jamison/Ibaka. Serge wants to protect the rim on defense but will be guarding a player that likes to hang around the perimeter, especially in transition. If Ibaka gets too caught up helping in the paint (on Howard or on Kobe drives), Jamison will be open. What he does with those shots will matter more tonight than on most others based off who is guarding him. On the other side, Ibaka likes to float around the shallow perimeter and shoot jumpers. But he will hit the glass hard. Jamison will need to recover to Ibaka when he pops out for his J while also keeping him off the offensive glass.

*Can the Lakers’ bench score enough points? Meeks and Hill will need to push the Lakers’ reserves above the 20 point total for this game to be close. Meeks must stretch the floor and Hill must outwork Collison and Thabeet on the glass to earn second chance points and trips to the foul line. That’s a tough task, but if he can do it, the Lakers will be in a good position all night.

*The Lakers must turn Thunder miscues into points. OKC is 28th in turnovers committed and 23rd in turnover percentage. If Durant has one flaw in his game it’s that as a playmaker, though improved, he still locks on to his target too often and can have tunnel vision when making a cross court pass off the dribble. The same is true of Westbrook, who can be turnover prone. The Lakers must force force them both into making mistakes with the ball and then go the other way to create easy baskets.

Again, tell me what you think is going to happen in this game and the opposite is just as likely to happen. The Thunder are a fantastic team but the Lakers, even without Pau and Nash, have a capable crew themselves. It will take a lot of things to go right to win, but that’s true almost every other night too. Let’s see if they can end this 3 game roadie on a hight note.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on ESPN and TWC Sportsnet. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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