Preview and Chat: The Oklahoma City Thunder

Darius Soriano —  January 11, 2013

Records: Lakers 15-20 (11th in the West), Thunder 27-8 (2nd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.2 (6th in the NBA), Thunder 110.5 (1st in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.8 (21st in the NBA), Thunder 100.2 (6th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Robert Sacre
Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Injuries: Lakers: All of them. They’re all injured. Thunder: none

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have lost 5 in a row. Pau Gasol is still suffering after-affects from the concussion he sustained against the Nuggets and will not play tonight. Ron sustained a groin contusion (maybe the worst sounding injury ever), but is slated to start anyway. Earl Clark, coming off the best game of his career, will start next to Robert Sacre to form a frontcourt of players who were literally the 14th and 15th players on the roster a week ago. I tried to write that all very quickly so it could sort of be like ripping off a bandaid.

On the bright side, despite the losses, the Lakers are playing harder (if not much better). The infusion of Clark and Sacre into the lineup has produced more sustained effort in back end rotations, something that has been buoyed by the Lakers’ wings also showing more effort in chasing the ball around the perimeter to try and contest shots. Of course the wings are still allowing way too much dribble penetration which is leading to too many point blank shots, but we’ll save that for another day.

More positives would be the Lakers finding a few more things that work on offense. Nash has been more assertive in looking for his own shot and that has opened up more passing lanes when defenses commit to slowing him. There have also been a few nice P&R actions that saw Nash duck in with the dribble behind the roll man, draw defenders and then dump the ball off to the secondary big who circle cuts from the baseline. This is an action the Suns used to run for Shawn Marion a lot, so it’s nice to see the Lakers start to use it some.

All in all, though, there’s not much to be happy about right now. Better effort is nice but with the losses piling up there’s really no more room on the ledger for moral victories.

The Thunder Coming in: If you want to look at things positively from a Laker perspective, two of the Thunder’s eight losses have come in their last five games. Their last loss was to the Wizards in a game where Bradley Beal went off and hit a game winner. Furthermore, in recent games Durant has been arguing a bit more and has picked up a few technical fouls for his trouble. If it seems like that’s reaching, it’s because it is. The other side of it all is that Thunder have only lost eight times all year and they simply haven’t missed a beat since last season. They continue to roll and are only a half game behind the Clippers for the best record in the league.

At this point, there’s really no need to gush over the Thunder or their individual players. They’re now in their 4th year where they look better than the previous season. Their young players are still young, but have gained valuable experience over the years as they’ve broken through expectations to the point that there’s only one thing left for them to accomplish. The Thunder (like the Lakers) are a “championship or bust” organization now. Every move they make from now forward should be in aid of reaching that goal and, as it stands right now, they look to have the team to get it done without even a minor tweak to their roster. They are that good.

Thunder Blogs: Check out Daily Thunder for excellent analysis and all your Thunder news.

Keys to game: The odds are long the Lakers win this game. A loss would be their 6th in a row and history says that doesn’t happen too often to the Lakers, but history also rarely sees a Laker team decimated by injuries with a roster already too shallow to begin with. Things just aren’t looking good for tonight.

That said, the game will still be played and I fully expect the Lakers to come out fighting and to stay competitive for a good stretch. The key will be how the team plays defensively. Early reports say that Earl Clark will start on Kevin Durant which should prove an interesting match up. I by no means have any expectation that Clark can stop Durant. KD was brilliant in the Finals with LeBron James draped all over him and Clark is no LeBron. However, Clark does offer an intriguing combination of size, length, and quickness. If Clark can successfully keep KD in front of him and still find ways to contest his jumper in the process, he’ll have done his job. KD will get his 25 points (give or take). What you don’t want is him getting 35-40 in an efficient manner.

The other key defensive matchup with peg Kobe against Westbrook. These two have faced off plenty over the years with both of them winning their share of the battles. Russ will likely try to punish Kobe in the open court and then use screens to free him up to attack in the half court. Kobe would be wise to continue to lay off Russ and let him take the jumper. The last time these teams met, Westbrook was hitting that jumper at a remarkable rate and it led to OKC blowing the game open. However, those are mostly the shots you want him taking. If they fall, you tip your cap. But you have to trust the process even if the results aren’t what you’d want.

The other player to watch is Ibaka. With Ron starting out on Serge, it will be interesting to see how OKC’s pick and pop game works out. Ron still isn’t used to being the hedge and recover man in the P&R and has had some issues in when to abandon the ball handler in order to scurry back to his own man. This has led to miscommunications between the Ron and the PG in who is supposed to be where. Ibaka will make defenses pay for indecision by quickly taking the open jumper when the ball is swung his way. The Lakers must be quick to find him in space and make him either put the ball on the ground or move the ball on to a teammate rather than take that open 16 footer (which he can make pretty consistently now). While I understand long twos are a shot a defense can live with, you’d much rather it be Perkins who takes those types of shots than Serge.

The flip side to the matchups I’ve highlighted above is that there’s an interesting opportunity for the Lakers to exploit some cross matches when they transition from defense to offense. For example, if Russ gets caught on Kobe, Lakers would be wise to run some quick hitting post up actions to get him shots closer to the basket. Russ is a quality defender but is still giving up size and strength to Kobe. An added benefit could also be Kobe drawing an early foul or two on Westbrook which could change the complexion of the game rather quickly.

A secondary cross match would be if Ibaka gets caught guarding Ron rather than being able to shift back to Earl Clark. Ron offers good enough shooting to make Ibaka pay for roaming off him to contest shots in the paint. Even though the Lakers don’t have their primary bigs to threaten the post consistently, they’ll still hope to establish the paint via quick dives/post ups for Kobe and with Sacre diving to the rim on standard P&R’s. Ibaka can gum up those actions easily when helping, but if Ron can hit some shots that can open up the rest of the offense.

Lastly, controlling the tempo of this game is very important. OKC has the superior talent and playing a high possession game only favors them. They would love to get into trackmeet and allow their superior athleticism and skill level shine through. The Lakers must find a way to ugly up the game, grind out possessions on both ends of the floor, and limit the number of chances OKC has to break open the game. If the Lakers can limit turnovers and attack the weaknesses of the OKC D (involve Perkins in P&Rs, attack Kevin Martin on and off the ball), they greatly improve their chances of a win.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on TWC Sportsnet and ESPN. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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