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The Laker Way

Emile Avanessian —  August 21, 2012

I stand corrected. It appears the “new Laker fandom” will bear a striking resemblance to that which preceded it.

Ever since Andrew Bynum schooled J.J. Barea on the nuances of Newtonian physics in the spring of 2011, it was apparent that the Lakers — as then constituted — required a facelift. As that spring gave way to summer, and summer to lockout, lockout to, well, more lockout, and ultimately to the most frantic NBA silly season ever, the Lakers looked to have gone full Jerry Jones, swapping championship lynchpins Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom for the best possible solution to their long running point guard dilemma, Chris Paul. Upon learning from David Stern that their health insurance policy did not cover cosmetic overhauls of this magnitude — let’s see if this analogy has legs, huh? — the Lakers were forced to pull a page from the playbook of many a courtside patron and “just get a little work done.”

No sooner had he “returned” from New Orleans than a dejected Odom was rerouted to the defending champion Mavericks, in exchange for a draft pick that reimbursed the Lakers for the legislated theft of Chris Paul — a pick that might just have materialized in time to select Little CP — and an $8.9 million handful of magic beans. Hold this thought.

Almost (if not) universally panned at the time, the saga seemed an ugly manifestation of the new Jimmy Buss era. Ascribed to a desire to jettison an emotional landmine, presumably of equal importance was the resulting cut in payroll. Between the new CBA and Short Buss/Gob/[insert pet name of your choosing], the Lakers were (yeah, I’m irrational and entitled. whatever) falling back to the NBA pack.

In the months that followed, they went back under the knife, turning Luke Walton and a first round pick into the point guard upgrade Laker Nation pined for, and then sending talismanic on-court liability Derek Fisher to Houston, in exchange for Jordan Hill. Ramon Sessions immediately cleared the shin-high hurdle of expectation (inspiring more than a few $e$$ion$ tweets along the way), averaging 12.7 points and 6.2 assists per game and posting a True Shooting Percentage of 57% (thanks to 48.6% from beyond the arc), while Hill showed flashes of becoming a badly needed frontcourt spark plug.

In the aforementioned pair of trades, the Lakers claimed no better than one draw and one defeat. There is a case to be made that the two trades did nothing more than cost the Lakers an ever-so-scarce first rounder (seriously, are we sure Mitch Kupchak didn’t once cut a shady deal with Joe Smith?) to rent a lead guard whose performance waned with time — though not so much that he opted against opting out of his contract — and a lotto-bust-turned-glue-guy that might have priced himself out of their budget with seven 6 and 6’s.

Fair enough.

That said, however, there is also a case to be made that the value of addressing your most glaring weakness — with a possible long-term solution (didn’t happen, but still) — while simultaneously inspiring goodwill among fans likely trumps the yield of a mid-20s draft pick. Hell, keeping Jordan Hill probably accomplishes that on its own.

Sure, the acquisition of this generation’s original #PointGod is a rising tide that lifts many a personnel decision, but that itself is merely a product of a longtime philosophy — one built on an ideal combination of patience and decisiveness, with zero parts fear. For more than three decades Mitch Kupchak (and Jerry West before him) and Jimmy (and for the three decades prior, Jerry) Buss have continually taken to the tightrope — if not in pursuit of improving the roster, then forcibly, at the hands of a disgruntled star (be it Magic in 1982, Shaq in 2003-04, Kobe in 2007 or Odom last winter) — and continually resisted the temptation of simple self-preservation (y’know, the type that seeks the comfort of “winning every trade” en route to building Replacement Player Voltron) in the interest of delivering true difference makers.

It is understanding, in the summer of 2004, that the differences between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant could no longer be worked around, and trading Shaq — perhaps a year or two early — in favor of the next decade of a purported franchise killer. It is, 11 months later with the Lakers clearly in decline and the remainder of Kobe’s prime hanging in the balance, selecting high schooler Andrew Bynum (while I begged for Danny Granger). Though Bynum was a project, his is twice- (perhaps three times) in-a-decade potential. It’s unlikely that in June 2005 the Lakers’ brass knew much more than we did regarding the path Bynum’s career would take, but they understood that should he realize even (arbitrarily) 60% of his potential, his value, on the floor and as an asset, would likely exceed that of an athletic wing, even one as talented as Granger. And given Bynum’s roles in both hanging another pair of banners in the rafters and the acquisition of the greatest center since Shaquille O’Neal, clearly they were correct.

In the weeks that followed, the second-best member of the 2004-05 Lakers and a future All-Star, Caron Butler – who is also a Kobe favorite and (in possibly related news) the rare member of the first post-Shaq Laker squad not openly starstruck in Bean’s presence – was shipped to the nation’s capital, in exchange for MJ-protégé-turned-ham-handed-cake-vandal Kwame Brown. In all likelihood the downgrade was not lost on Kupchak – though it must be said that Kwame Brown, a 22 year-old big man four years removed from being a #1 overall pick, presented an interesting value proposition — though neither was the realization that building the Western Conference’s version of the Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards offered little long term value.

Meanwhile, with Bynum developing at a pace one would expect from an 18 year-old big man, Kobe, fearing the remainder of his prime would be frittered away in NBA purgatory, (inadvertently) publicly lobbied for the front office to cut ties with Bynum, in favor of Jason Kidd. Upon the front office’s refusal to oblige his request, Kobe shifted his focus and, in the summer of 2007, demanded that he himself be traded, preferably to the Chicago Bulls, preferably in exchange for a less-than-optimal package. In this, the most terrifying time to be a Laker fan since November 1991, Kupchak stayed his course, recognizing that he was under no obligation to act in haste, and refused to become footnoted as the man that traded two of the top dozen players in the game’s history.

Banking on Kobe’s dedication to his craft (and his legacy) winning out, the Lakers tipped off the 2007-08 with their frustrated superstar in tow. And then a funny thing happened…

While Kobe brooded and plotted his exit from L.A. (though he still balled), a rare underdog Laker squad, behind double-double averages from Odom and Bynum (who was lost for the season after just 35 games) and 20.8 points and 5.6 assists in 48 combined minutes per game from Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar, unexpectedly returned to the top of the Western Conference. Winners of 19 of their first 29 and 27 of their first 40, the Lakers were rewarding Kupchak’s steadfastness in not parting company with a transcendent talent. The extent to which they were true contenders was debatable, but the greenness of the grass elsewhere could no longer be a given for Kobe.

Having not only traded a future All-Star to acquire Kwame Brown, but also having given him a three-year/$24-million contract to stick around, the Lakers looked to be a bit of a bind with their bust-y big man. That winter, as he did again this summer, Mitch turned the tables on that pair of increasingly fruitless personnel decisions. As tends to be the case with the habitually successful, good fortune smiled upon the Lakers — in the form of a stalled counterparty desperate to cut costs and salvage value for a big money star. On February 1, 2008, in one of the great redemptive trades in recent history, Kupchak parlayed Kwame (along with Marc Gasol, who unexpectedly blossomed into a top-shelf center) into one of the world’s most unique, talented and uniquely talented big men, Pau Gasol.

The rest you are probably familiar with. Having significantly upgraded the frontcourt without creating new holes elsewhere (sound familiar?), the Lakers won 27 of their final 36 in the regular season, locked up the West’s top seed and coasted through the playoffs, dropping just three games en route to the Finals.

A lackluster Finals performance and a pair of postseason disappointments gave rise (and longevity) to more undeserved criticism than any team-first top-15 talent that’s helped anchor a pair of title teams should ever have to endure. In addition, they sparked endless speculation regarding Gasol’s future with the franchise. In the face of mounting pressure and dwindling rationality, thanks in large part to Pau’s incredible maturity and professionalism, rather than selling low on an all-world talent, Kupchak held tight. (Note: yes, in December 2011 he did in fact trade Pau, but in doing so he was procuring the services of Chris freaking Paul)

Meanwhile…

Crucified at the time (yeah, I did it too) for gifting Odom, a valued contributor to the defending champions, and again at the trade deadline for seemingly foregoing the opportunity to salvage value in exchange, Kupchak again conducted a clinic in opportunism. With the Lakers sliding further down the Western Conference totem pole, in classic Laker front office fashion, he masterfully capitalized on one of the assets at his disposal. Using the flexibility afforded by the $8.9 million trade exception, Kupchak facilitated the Phoenix Suns’ transition into transition, landed one of the great point guards of this generation and one of the best shooters of all time — Steve Nash.

Meanwhile…

On a different front, trade winds continued to swirl around Andrew Bynum. Ever since the Jason Kidd chatter of years past, he had been rumored… let’s just say that any rumor not involving Gasol (and even one that did) was constructed around ‘Drew.

As he had with Kobe and Gasol, Kupchak (probably with some input from Jimmy) took a measured approach, valuing Bynum (rightfully) as elite asset and refusing to swap a super-skilled 7-foot, 285-pound, 24 year-old (how is he still so young??) for whatever shiny object du jour happened to be dangled before him. Additionally, when it seemed the Dwight Howard saga (putting it mildly) might conclude with the Lakers stranded in the cold, Kupchak held his ground, refusing to package Bynum and Gasol in exchange for Howard, as Orlando was demanding. And in the end, with a Joe Johnson trade here and Brook Lopez max-out there, the urgency Orlando had attempted to instill in the Lakers not only subsided, but reversed field.

In thinking about the recent chain of events in Lakerland, I am reminded of a decade and a half ago. A once-in-a-lifetime big man and (though we didn’t know it at the time) wing within the Lakers’ grasp, then-GM (and Kupchak’s mentor and hoops Jedi) Jerry West, having resisted the urge to trade away Vlade Divac — around whom (if memory serves) rumors had swirled (as much as they could back then) — the season prior, parted ways with his starting center only when payoff was the payroll flexibility required to secure a transcendent big man like Shaquille O’Neal… and an 18 year-old Kobe Bryant.

Hate the Lakers for past success. Hate them for their inexhaustible resources. Hate them for residing in a top-tier market with perfect weather. Understand, however, that more than any of these, what’s set them apart is the ability to maintain composure when the stakes are highest. West understood in ’96 what Mitch Kupchak has since mastered. The skill lies not in knowing precisely who will come available and when, but in the knowledge that someone will hit the market, and that the flexibility to deal and willingness to pounce without fear are the ultimate difference makers.

During his eight-year run in Phoenix, Steve Nash led the NBA in assists six times, and five times in assists per game and Assist Rate, finishing in the top three in each category every year. He turned in a record four seasons in which he made 50% of his field goals, 40% of his 3-pointers and 90% of his free throws, missing narrowly on two other occasions –2006-07 (89.9% FT) and 2010-11 (39.5% from 3). Three times he quarterbacked the Suns to the conference finals, missing trips to the championship round consecutive years due to Joe Johnson’s face and Robert Horry’s ass.

For his trouble, Nash earned six All-star selections, three All-NBA First Team nods (and a pair of Seconds) and a pair of league MVP trophies. Additionally, he earned charter membership in the League Pass Hall of Fame, gained the inside track on entry into that other Hall and cemented his status as one of the great player representatives in NBA history. What… whah?

Yessir. We occupy a world in which Shawn Marion, Raja Bell, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye and Lou Amundson have pounded paychecks totaling more than $220 million. This figure will approach $250 mill by 2015. Tim Thomas has been paid nearly $25 million since 2006. Give kudos to the David Falks of the world if you must, but…

So three weeks ago, a Laker offseason soaked in questions and seemingly destined to hinge on an all-in play aimed at upgrading the always vital “occasional pain in the ass, sublimely gifted big man” spot took a dramatic turn with the acquisition of the aforementioned virtuoso. Nash’s arrival on the Lakers’ roster did little to quell the questions that swirl around this team.

In the weeks to come, we’ll continue to discuss Dwight Howard’s future home. We’ll question the ability of Kobe Bryant to coexist with an assertive, pure point guard (I say this ends extremely well. Nash is Kobe’s kind of player – tough, detail-oriented and a workaholic. Plus, fair or not, he could throw an MVP trophy on eBay and still match Bean’s tally). We’ll wonder aloud about Pau Gasol’s future with the Lakers (he was just gifted a playmaker for whom his game was seemingly custom made), as well as that of Andrew Bynum (who knows? I’m not comfortable handicapping his internal dialogue).

In due time, however. For me, since the announcement of Nash’s relocation to Staples, one recurring question has dominated… which completely average Laker will he Point God into national prominence and an eight-figure payday? A walk through Nash’s days in the desert reveals beneficiaries past, and provides a template for those to come…

Andrew Bynum/Amar’e Stoudemire (with a side of Tim Thomas) – Ok, so I tweaked this one. ‘Drew – like Amar’e before him – is already a star. Also like STAT, he’s got an injury record that’s too significant to ignore, but (in Stoudemire’s case, until the spring of 2011) has done little damage to his professional standing. That’s because, also like STAT, he has more talent than any reasonable person knows what to do with. So much in fact, that he occasionally becomes flummoxed, and does virtually nothing at all.

To extend the comparison, if Bynum is the Lakers’ starting center this season, Nash will extract more of his best than we’ve ever seen. Look for at least 20-12 from ‘Drew in 2012-13, along with a starting nod for the All-Star Game and (if you’d like to call me crazy, here is your first opportunity) a dalliance with MVP candidacy.

Unlike many former Suns for whom Nash has secured tens of millions of dollars, Andrew Bynum does not stand to benefit financially from Point God’s presence. Barring an unforeseen turn of events, Bynum is a virtual lock to be showered with max money, either by the Lakers or someone else. Thanks to Steve Nash, however, he’ll deserve those fat checks more than ever before.

Christian Eyenga/Leandro Barbosa (pipe dream: Shawn Marion) – Perhaps the biggest reach of the bunch. A 23 year-old whose career point tally (320) falls short of that any month churned out by Kobe Bryant in 2005-06, compared with a former Sixth Man of the Year who, at his best ranked among the game’s most incisive attackers, let alone a four-time All Star, who in six full seasons as the evolutionary James Worthy managed no worse than a 19.8 PER.

That said, since the start of 2009-10 (Barbosa’s last season as a Sun) and 2007-08 (the season in which Marion was dealt to the Miami Heat) neither has topped his worst True Shooting Percentage or PER mark of the “Seven Seconds or Less” era.

Though the comparisons are meant somewhat in jest, who’s to say that a super-athletic (again, 23 year-old) wing – albeit one desperately in need of on-court reps as well as a jump shot – is incapable of linking up with one of history’s great playmakers and developing into, say, two thirds of prime Barbosa?

Jordan Hill/Channing Frye – A pair of former Knicks’ #8 overall picks for whom the NBA transition proved tougher than originally expected. After an excellent rookie campaign in New York (12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, 47.7% from the field), Frye fell off, leading to a trade to Portland following his second season. After a pair of increasingly lackluster seasons with Blazers, Frye found himself in free agency in the summer of 2009.

Fortunately for Channing, the Phoenix Suns – well, Steve Nash, really – were on hand with a lifeline. On essentially a one-year deal and presumably playing for his NBA future, he returned to the form that made him a prized prospect as a rookie, averaging 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and connecting on a career-high 43.9% of his 4.8 3-point attempts per game… and scoring $30 million over the next five years.

Cut from a similar cloth, Hill took the floor a whopping 24 times for the Knicks (not terribly at that, averaging 14 and 8.7 per 36 minutes, with a 15 PER), before heading to Houston in a February 2010 trade. In 127 games between the trade and the spring of 2011, his (again) solid play (13 and 10.5 per 36; he averaged 15 minutes per game), and Hill was again sent packing, this time to L.A. In 19 games as a Laker, Hill provided a desperately needed spark, nearly pricing himself out of the budget in the process, with seven games of 6 and 6 or better (in just 11.7 minutes per game), averages of 14.6 points and 13.5 boards per 36 and an NBA best 18.9% Offensive Rebound Rate in 12 postseason games.

Metta World Peace/Raja Bell – Defensive stoppers with a propensity for, err, enthusiastically imposing their respective wills on the cranial region of opposing two guards, each with a headbutt of sorts with Kobe Bryant under his belt.

Having made at least 37% of his 3-pointers in nine of the last 10 seasons, compared with just two in 12 full seasons for Metta, Bell is pretty clearly the superior perimeter marksman. However, as the least potent member of a unit in which all remaining members command the attention of multiple defenders – but with a physical presence on defense that will keep him on the floor – Metta is in line for a steady stream of open looks, as both a spot-up man and a cutter.

Matt Barnes*/Matt Barnes – Though he suffered through his worst defensive season as a pro (per Basketball Reference, he allowed 111 points per 100 defensive possessions), Barnes’ 2008-09 campaign – his only one with with Nash and the Suns – was his best as a passer (3.7 assists/36 minutes; 14.5% Assist Rate), and his second best as a scorer (13.6 points/36), perimeter shooter (34.3% on 3-pointers) and defensive rebounder (18.5% DRR).

Whether it’s reasonable to expect a 38 year-old Nash to coax 28 year-old form out of a 32 year-old Barnes is debatable, but there few lead guards at any age I’d rather bet on to manage the feat.

Andrew Goudelock/Quentin Richardson – Ask the average fan about Q-Rich’s lone season with Nash and you’re likely to be regaled with anecdotal tales of knockdown shooting. The fact is, however, that while Richardson averaged eight attempts (freaking EIGHT), making 2.9, from beyond the arc in 2004-05, he connected at an above average (for a decent shooter) 35.8%, but shot just 38.9% overall from the field.

In 10 minutes per game as a rookie, despite connecting on just 39.1% of his field goals overall, Goudelock connected on nearly one (0.7) of 1.9 – or 37.3% – 3-point attempts per game. Per 36 minutes, that’s a Quentin-esque 2.4 of 6.4. Assuming nothing more than the normal growth in minutes than comes with a year of experience (to say, 15 minutes per) along with the benefit of spotting up for Steve Nash passes, off of Steve Nash penetration, and ‘Lock may in line for a payday that neither Derek Fisher, Ramon Sessions, Steve Blake nor his agent could have secured for him.

Josh McRoberts/Lou Amundson – A pair of unproductive but energetic “glue guys,” for whom an NBA paycheck will remain a thing longer than logic would dictate it should, thanks entirely (ok, in large part) to Steve Nash.

A season removed from having earned ~$210,000 playing for three different teams and failing to post a double digit PER in any stint with any of them, Amundson joined the Suns, where he enjoyed the only above average years of his career, earned another two years in the NBA and $4+ million.

A superior athlete of higher pedigree and spectacular finisher at rim, look for Nash’s lobability to not only turn McBobs into a highlight reel darling, but to bank the former Dukie seven, maybe eight figures he’d otherwise never see.

Devin Ebanks*/Jared Dudley – Dudley is an excellent Twitter follow and, by all accounts, a really nice guy. Running alongside Steve Nash, he’s established himself as a pretty above average player that can bury an open jumper.

However, in Nash’s absence, with faster, quicker, more athletic defenders no longer having to sag into the lane while protecting against picture perfect kickouts, it’s difficult to envision anything but a bruising fall to mediocrity.

Ebanks, on the other hand, while a decidedly inferior shooter (in far fewer opportunities), is precisely the type of young running mate that Nash raises to prominence. An atheltic 6’9″-215, Ebanks (who now, in his third year, should see the floor for 20-24 minutes per game) should present Nash with a excellent target on the break. Whether Devin’s got the all-around game to truly crack Nash’s stable of clients remains to be seen, but, again, if it’s going to happen with anyone…

*Assuming he remains a Laker

 

It’s been the running narrative for a few seasons now and I’m as guilty as the next person. When Andrew Bynum emerged, we rushed to classify Pau Gasol as a Power Forward and hailed his move to that spot as one that placed him in his “natural position”.

The logic was simple, really. Pau, and his willowy frame, would be better off not dealing with the constant pounding of playing Center. As a PF he’d no longer be exposed to the physical toll of being guarded by the big bruisers of the league and instead would play more against guys that weren’t as strong and not as tall. It would be better for his career; better for his production.

Well, I’m now of the mindset that those opinions miss the mark. Pau is not a Power Forward. Pau is a Center. Consider the following:

  • Pau Gasol has posted a better PER at Center than at PF in all but one season since he’s come to the Lakers (this includes the 2007-08 season).
  • Including that first half a season of his Laker career, Gasol has posted PER’s while playing C of 26.7, 26.3, 28.1, 24.3, and 21.7.
  • As a PF (excluding that first half season, as he didn’t play any PF for that stretch), Gasol has posted PER’s of 21.0, 21.4, 25.4, and 20.1.
  • As a post up player, Gasol has ranked in the top 26 players in the league in points per play in two of the past three seasons.

So, in essence, what we have is a player that in 4 of the past 5 years has posted better PER’s as a C while also being one of the best post up players in the league. Yet, the running notion is that he’s better off playing a different position.

It seems, what we’ve done is mistaken Pau’s versatility to play PF as an indicator that he’s better playing that position. We’ve overvalued his height advantage, overplayed his strength deficiency, and concluded that his best fit is one that explores the facets of his game that aren’t as strong (his mid-range shooting) as the ones he’s used to his advantage his entire career in both the NBA and internationally (his post up game). The reality is, though, what we’ve really done is not looked closely enough at the advantages of him playing C.

Today’s NBA is really about speed. The quicker and more athletic the player, the better suited he is to today’s NBA. If that athleticism comes in a physically imposing frame (think LeBron or Dwight Howard) the better, but this is not a requirement to be effective. In playing Pau at PF he is effectively surrendering his quickness and athleticism advantages on nearly every night.

This really can’t be overstated. When a player has a quickness advantage it makes every part of his offensive arsenal more effective. If on the wing or at the elbow, it’s easier to beat your man off the dribble. If cutting off the ball to either catch a pass on the way to the basket or to establish prime position on the court, that advantage can be all the difference. When working in the post, quick spin moves or drives after turning/facing are much more effective. Even in pick and roll situations, a big man that can screen and then use is quickness to dash into the open spaces on the floor is immensely valuable. As a C, Pau has that advantage almost nightly. As a PF, it diminishes greatly.

(As an aside, I liken this to the Lamar Odom at SF experiment we saw for brief stretches under Phil Jackson. The idea was that Odom’s guard skills would translate to playing SF and it would give the Lakers an unprecedented size advantage against teams. However, what actually happened was Odom’s quickness advantage disappeared against traditional SF’s and his size did little to give him an edge if he couldn’t use his quickness to get to the spots on the floor he favored. Phil ultimately scrapped the idea entirely.)

But, Gasol has been put in a position where he cedes that advantage more and more with the emergence of Andrew Bynum. This isn’t to blame Andrew for anything. He’s earned his increased role on offense by becoming one of the most difficult big men to manage defensively. But with Bynum becoming more of a focal point, Gasol’s role has shifted. He’s been asked to space the floor, be more of a distributor, and operate as a 3rd option. It’s a testament to him that he remains as effective and put up the numbers he does while playing more and more minutes as a PF when he’s been much more effective as a C throughout his career.

What this means for Pau’s future remains to be seen. He will likely be shopped on the trade market this off-season and whether he remains a Laker will depend greatly on how much his value to the team can be replicated through what he’d fetch from another team. However, after the last few years it’s become more and more clear to me that whatever team he suits up for next season should try to better optimize his role by playing him more at C. It’s the position he’s shown to be most effective at and the one where he’s also shown the most comfort. Whether it agrees with the narrative or not.

*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com, 82games.com, MySynergySports, and Hoopdata.

Well, that was fun.

A year after a playoff home opener in which they were brutally craved up by Chris Paul and after a(nother) regular season in which a double-digit leads made frequent cameos but were often unable to carry a show, on Sunday the Lakers physically dominated an overmatched foe in a manner that was expected, but conspicuously absent for much of the campaign. In what can only be called an ideal playoff opener, the Lakers, powered by an aggressive defense and some timely outside shooting, opened up an early double digit lead and – with the exception of a couple of barely perceptible blips – cruised to a 103-88 Game 1 victory over the Nuggets.

The Lakers were sparked by an glorious (or terrifying, depending our your perspective) defensive performance from Andrew Bynum (an NBA playoff record 10 blocked shots and the Lakers’ first postseason triple-double since Magic in 1991), sustained by a trio of outstanding postseason debuts and some timely long-range strike form Steve Blake, and capped by a blinding barrage from Kobe Bryant (9-of-14 after halftime, including 14 straight Laker points in 4:31 of the fourth quarter). Lest you forget, Pau Gasol was in attendance as well, looking every bit the part of “world’s most skilled big,” with 13 points (including a 3-pointer), 8 rebounds, 8 assists and a pair of blocked shots of his own. It was an all-around solid playoff opener, setting the tone for what should be a fairly businesslike – if more competitive – series.

This is not to say that ‘Drew will swat 11% (!!) of Denver’s shot attempts from the sky, Jordan hill double-doubles (10 and 10, with 4 offensive boards) are the new norm, nor that Devin Ebanks ought to be blindly penciled in for an ultra-efficient 12 (5-of-6 FG, 2-of-2 FT) each night (incidentally, the Lakers’ third playoff debutante, Ramon Sessions, turned in a completely replicable 14, on 6-of-11, and 5 assists). It would also be foolish to ignore the fact that, while Bynum impromptu block party dramatically dented the Nuggets’ composure in the paint (per Hoopdata, just 48.8% on shots at the rim and 13.4% from 3-9 feet out), the Lakers’ perimeter defenders did an atrocious job of keeping Denver out of the paint. The Nuggets attempted a whopping 54 shots from within nine feet, 39 of those from point blank range, more than half those by non-bigs Danilo Gallinari (5-of-8 at the rim), Andre Miller (4-of-8) and Al Harrington (0-of-4). If the Lakers are unable to prevent penetration into the lane – and remember, strong, speedy Ty Lawson was a non-factor on Sunday – in addition to probably making more than half of their shots at the rim, it’s possible that the Nuggets will be aided by a bit of gamesmanship from coach George Karl, whose postgame comments included a barb about Bynum’s “illegal” defense. Don’t be surprised if ‘Drew is clipped early with a Defensive 3 Seconds call, and forced to slightly alter his approach.

Additionally, as Karl himself suggested in the huddle – and as anyone that watched Sunday’s game will attest – the Nuggets entered Game 1 neither properly engaged mentally nor committed to pushing the breakneck pace that has been their calling card all season. A stronger showing from the starting backcourt (Lawson and Arron Afflalo shot a combined 6-of-22 and missed all five of their 3-point attempts), Al Harrington and Andre Miller (who actually had a great all-around game off the bench, with 12 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists) combined to hit more than a third of their shots and continued efficiency and activity from the starting frontcourt of Gallinari (7-of-14, 19 points) and the Manimal, Kenneth Faried (4-of-8, 10 points, 8 rebounds and so. much. energy.) ought to make Game 2 a more competitive affair.

With all of that said, however, the blueprint with which the Lakers can look to exploit their advantages over an undersized opponent remain very much in place. With a commitment to pounding the ball inside to Bynum, Gasol and Kobe, controlling the tempo and turning the Nuggets into a halfcourt team on offense and limiting turnovers (a season-long bugaboo; they had just 11 in Game 1), Game 2, while more competitive, should mirror Game 1 in its result. Prior to the playoffs I’d predicted a six-game Lakers victory in this series. I now have a tough time seeing the Nuggets pushing this matchup past five games.

Records: Lakers: 40-23 (3rd in the West), Thunder: 46-17 (2nd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 106.1 (11th in the NBA), Thunder: 109.8 (2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 104.3 (13th in the NBA), Thunder: 102.9 (9th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: none

The Lakers Coming In: With 96 minutes of ball remaining in a breakneck regular season, and just one day between the end of Game 66 and the beginning of the postseason, veteran playoff-bound squads – particularly those with a nicked-up superstar – are likely engaging in some late-stage R&R. Not in Lakerland, where the Purple and Gold – full complement of talent now in tow – are hustling to get back up to speed while locked in a tooth-and-nail, cross-hallway battle for playoff position and a division title.

After a seven-game absence, Kobe Bryant and his presumably less sore shin returned to action on Friday night in San Antonio. After a slow start in which he made just two of six shots, Kobe found his footing, finishing 7-of-12 from the field for 18 points in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, much of the remainder of the starting five – be it Pau Gasol (4-10 FG, 11 points in 30 minutes), Andrew Bynum (TWO rebounds, just days after grabbing 30 against the same squad) or Ramon Sessions (5 points on 2-of-9 in 24 minutes) – fell well short of the standards they’d set in the Mamba’s absence. With Tim Duncan and Tony Parker scoring an efficient 41 and Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Daniel Green and Gary Neal connecting on 80% (8-of-10) of their 3-point attempts, I’m not sure any team has the bullets in its gun to down the Spurs, but at this time of year, there’s really no excuse for putting forth that lackluster an effort on the boards and offering so little resistance in the midst of a third quarter blitz.

Looking forward, the Lakers welcome to Staples an OKC squad that’s given them fits in both meetings this season – running the Lakers ragged in a 15-point home win on February 23, then overcoming a brutal start in L.A. on March 29 and riding Russ Westbrook’s 36 to a nine-point win on the Lakers’ home floor.

The Thunder Coming In: The Thunder enter Sunday’s showdown in a situation similar to that of Lakers, trailing San Antonio by one-half game for the West’s top spot. Though they’ve won four of five, OKC is hardly firing on all cylinders. Since April 1, they’ve not only failed (in five opportunities) to notch a victory against playoff-bound opposition, but have fallen short of the 100-mark on each occasion and only once connected on better than 45% of their field goal (45.2% v. Memphis on 4/2) and 32% of their 3-point attempts (46.2% on 4/11 v. Clippers).

Rightfully, all eyes with be on OKC’s dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but it’s the remainder of the roster, and their ability to neutralize the Lakers trio of stars. In the paint, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins (averaging 17 points, 19.5 rebounds and 5 blocks in the previous two meetings), with glue guy extraordinaire Nick Collison off the bench, will lock horns with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, whom they’ve “held” to a combined 37 points and 20 rebounds per game.

Meanwhile, in the backcourt, Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden will look to extend Kobe’s struggles against the Thunder. In the two previous meetings, Kobe has managed a combined 47 points on an awful 14-of-49 (28.6%) from the field, due in large part to the length and athleticism of OKC’s defenders.

Thunder Blogs: For the latest news and insight on the crew from OKC, check out the excellent work done by Daily Thunder and Welcome To Loud City.

Keys to the Game: Win the battle of the bigs. It’s tough to imagine Kobe hitting the floor in full facilitator mode, but he will do well to work off of his elite duo of seven-footers on the inside. Conversely, I’d look for the Thunder to pack the middle in an effort to entice not just Kobe, but all of the Lakers perimeter players (I am including Gasol here) to abandon the inside-out approach in favor of a jump-shot heavy approach. Be it via strong entry passes or dribble penetration, a top priority for the Lakers on Sunday will be to knife into the paint and take advantage of the defensive aggressiveness of the OKC bigs to earn frequent trips to the foul line and frequent, foul-induced trips to the bench for Perk and Ibaka (especially Ibaka, with whom on the floor, the Lakers’ offensive efficiency drops to just 86.7, compared with 108.6 without; great stat from Matt Moore, via Twitter).

Additionally, and thanks to Darius for his great input here, there are two areas of great importance. First, the Lakers’ ability to deal with Westbrook in the pick and roll will be vital. In the teams’ last match up, Russ was dialed in from mid-range, which, combined with the Lakers’ bigs (namely Bynum) sagging below the screens proved deadly. It will be interesting to see if the Lakers maintain this approach on Sunday, or tweak their scheme by having the bigs play the screen a bit more aggressively. This is not to say that the bigs will must hedge hard, but by playing a bit higher on the screen, Westbrook will have to deal with a defender – one prepared to contest the mid-range J – earlier, and perhaps be forced into more rushed decisions.

Finally, and every bit as importantly, the Lakers must get back in transition. It is vital that the Lakers effectively “build a wall” against Westbrook’s penetration, while also staying with the Thunder players filling the lanes. The keys here will be better floor balance and the perimeter guys prioritizing transition D over crashing the offensive glass. With Pau and Bynum – two of the best in the biz – already attacking the offensive boards, MWP and Matt Barnes will be far better served in working to limit OKC’s easy buckets by limiting run out opportunities.

Whether it ultimately results in a victory remains to be seen, but with the Clippers nipping at their heels, a possible second round matchup looming and third career scoring title in the balance (27.9 per game, v. Durant’s 27.8; yeah, you’re right, Kobe probably doesn’t care at all about that), look for Kobe and the Lakers to ratchet up the intensity on Sunday afternoon.

Where you can watch: 12:30 PM start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.