The Lakers coming in: The injury to Steve Blake necessitates yet another lineup change from the Lakers, this time moving Wes Johnson back into the starting lineup as the SF while Kobe slides over to “point guard”. Another change is Jordan Hill working his way back into the first five, replacing Shawne Williams as the starting PF. While there is a sense that Mike D’Antoni is again tinkering with the starting group (Hill for Williams and vice versa has been a season long question) I can’t say I am upset nor surprised with this particular change.
As I’ve said all year, I like Williams’ competitive fire and believe he’s a fine role player when he’s hitting his shots and playing hard defensively (the former hasn’t happened as consistently as I’d like, but the latter is a nightly occurrence). But Hill has been one of the most productive Lakers all season long and he needs more time on the floor. His ability to create extra possessions offensively and help stop the other team from scoring on the other end is simply too valuable to the team. I also like Hill next to Pau as a banger/paint protector/dive man in the P&R. These are key pieces to his game that pair nicely with Gasol’s game and having them on the floor together makes strategic sense.
Getting back to Kobe, while there are concerns about how he’s fitting into what the team was doing offensively before he came back, his move to point guard should help address them – though also create other questions that need resolution. As a primary ball handler, Kobe won’t be able to set up shop in the post early in possessions and will need to initiate the offense from up high rather than the wing. Whether he’s capable of doing this for all his minutes on the floor while keeping his turnovers down and managing a successful offense from the team perspective is open to doubt, but, as he said himself he has no choice in this matter with the Blake, Farmar, and Nash trio all on the shelf with injuries.
The Thunder coming in: OKC remains one of the best teams in the league and the Western Conference. Their 17-4 record trails only the Blazers and the Pacers for the league’s best mark and ties them with the Spurs for the 2nd best record in the conference.
This is a team that is built on the backs of its two superstars – Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant is once again showing his scoring dominance, posting a league best mark in that area while continuing with the improved rebounding and playmaking that he showed last season. Westbrook, meanwhile, is back healthy after the meniscus tear he suffered in last year’s playoffs kept him out of the lineup to start the season. Now that he is back, though, he’s showing no real affects of the injury. He’s still extremely athletic and is able to get to the rim and create his own shot just as he has in the past. Combined this duo scores nearly 50 points a game, essentially reclaiming their status as the league’s premier duo (or at least right there with LeBron and a healthy Dwyane Wade).
This team isn’t just about their stars, though. While they lost Kevin Martin in the off-season, back up combo guard Reggie Jackson has elevated his game and provides key minutes off the bench and next to Westbrook in smaller lineups. And, of course, Serge Ibaka remains one of the better power forwards in the league, providing above average play on both sides of the ball. Add to them second year pro Jeremy Lamb, Nick Collison, rookie big man Steven Adams, Thabo Sefolosha, and veterans Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher and this team has all the makings of the team we all expect to make a deep playoff run.
Keys to the game: Let’s get this out of the way early – the Lakers are at a deficiency in nearly every way imaginable against the Thunder. OKC has more talent, is younger, has better superstars, and executes better on both sides of the ball. Add to this that they are playing at home (where they are basically unbeatable) and losing this game should be expected. (Sorry if that gets you guys down, but thems the factcs.)
This doesn’t mean the Lakers shouldn’t just show up, however. There are ways the Lakers can remain competitive in this game and they need to play as much to their strengths as possible to try to make that happen.
Offensively, one of the major keys will be ball security. Kobe will need to be careful with the ball when handling in the P&R, not forcing passes and not committing live ball turnovers. Those are the plays that OKC will turn into points with ease, using them as the foundation for the types of runs the Lakers will have trouble recovering from. Another major key will be working hard in the P&R to collapse the paint via the dive and then using that space to create makeable shots from beyond the arc. If the Lakers hope to be close tonight, most of their offensive success will depend on hitting the long ball to them the extra point on any given possession that will allow them to overcome some of the droughts they are sure to experience.
A last key offensively is work the offensive glass and get some easy baskets inside as frequently as they can. Jordan Hill will likely be guarded by Ibaka and that should translate to him being able to sneak to the rim when Serge challenges shots that come in the paint. Of course, for that to happen, the Lakers must actually challenge the paint and that means that even though the team needs to hit 3’s, guys like Meeks, Young, and Kobe must also try to get into the paint and get shots up at the rim.
Defensively, the Lakers must try to keep Durant and Westbrook somewhat under control OR try to make them high volume shooters for them to get their points. This is easier said than done, but laying off Westbrook and hoping he settles for and misses long jumpshots is a key strategy. As for Durant, the Lakers must force him into help and challenge his jumper without fouling. Tonight is a big night for Wes Johnson as his length and athleticism are ideal for guarding Durant. Does Wes have the savvy and smarts to use those traits? We shall see.
Tempo will be very important tonight. The Lakers like to play fast (or at least they did pre-Kobe), but they can’t get caught up hunting early shots against the Thunder. Take open shots, but don’t force things looking for chances that aren’t there as that’s the style the Thunder will win out with very easily. Instead the Lakers need controlled aggression and smart execution. And even then, they’ll need some luck. Hopefully they get plenty of both. Just don’t count on it.
Where you can watch: 5pm start on TWC Sportsnet and ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.