The scheduling gods can be quite cruel. After playing a home and road back to back set against Clippers and Nuggets (both losses), the Lakers start a four game home and home stint with match ups against the Thunder and the Spurs. That’s four straight games against the two teams with the best records in the West; four straight games that can (will?) get ugly fast.
It all starts against the Thunder at Staples today and based off recent Lakers’ performances there is not much reason to be encouraged. The Thunder are fifth in the league in points scored per 100 possessions and with the way the Lakers have defended lately, there is a real opportunity for that number to improve. There isn’t a single match up, outside of Gasol vs. either Steven Adams or Nick Collison, that tilts in the Lakers favor. And I mean that when looking up and down the entire rosters of both teams.
There’s really no need to extoll the virtues of the Thunder’s players at this point. Kevin Durant is a co-favorite to win the MVP. Russell Westbrook is back in the lineup and remains one of the league’s top 10 or so best players. Players like Ibaka and Reggie Jackson have made huge strides over the last couple of seasons as two way contributors. With other role players, both young and veteran, rounding out their roster there’s no wondering why their one of the best teams in the league and one of the 3 or four teams who can legitimately lay claim to being a real contender to win the championship.
At this point I’d lay out a way for the Lakers to try and win this game, but the reality is things would need to go quite wrong for the Thunder for, basically, the entire contest for that to happen. If you recall the last time these two teams played the Lakers looked well on their way to stealing a victory, holding a good lead over the course of the entire game. They had held Durant mostly in check, keeping him off the foul line while seeing his jumper clang off the rim repeatedly. With Westbrook sitting out, the Lakers took advantage of KD’s low output. Then the fourth quarter came and Durant found his stride. His jumper started to fall, his aggression led to trips to the foul line, and before you knew it he had put up over 20 points in the period and the Thunder got the win.
The game was entertaining and, in some ways offered a moral victory, but that loss also confirmed the fact that the Thunder are several notches above the Lakers and simply needed to turn up their overall game to get the W. Today, I don’t expect them to have any such problems showing their superior class early on. As mentioned up top, the Lakers are simply defending too poorly and with their insistence on playing at a fast tempo with a small lineup, I think the Thunder use those extra possessions and size advantage at nearly every position to take a lead early and never look back.
Sure, there are ways for this to not happen. If Kendall Marshall could find his jumper again, the Lakers could get some needed points while helping their spacing for Gasol in the post, for Meeks on the perimeter, and for Bazemore to slash to the rim. If Gasol can get going in the post early he can anchor the offense and, hopefully, draw enough attention to open up the game for the perimeter shooters to get some open looks. Also, if they can turn the Thunder over early, they could get some easy baskets in the open court and generate some offense that way while also keeping the Thunder from scoring.
Sadly, as I’ve said too many times this year, even if the Lakers can do this for stretches it is nearly impossible for them to do so over the course of a full game without the other team finally saying “enough is enough” and exerting their superior talent at some point. In other words, the most we can probably hope for is a repeat of the last game these two played — a hard fought loss. Which, when you think about, isn’t the worst thing in the world, it’s just not what I enjoy rooting for.
Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.