The Lakers have been off since Monday, a bad loss at the hands of the Pacers to close their three game road trip. The Lakers were looking to win their 4th game in a row, but got smacked around early and never really recovered against the team from the Hoosier state. Tonight, then, the team will look to get back on track, but against a much more challenging foe and one of the hotter teams in the league.
The Thunder come in to this game winners of seven of their last eight contests. The lone loss was against the Warriors last night, a game that saw the Thunder dominate early, but succumb to a hot shooting Dubs team in the 2nd half. Of course it helped that Kevin Durant didn’t play in that half, sitting after spraining his right ankle. To that point Durant had scored 30 points in only 18(!) of action, torching every defender the Warriors threw his way. After Durant went down, Russell Westbrook took up the slack, but it was not enough against a Warriors team with a ton of firepower and a defense that knows how to turn up the heat and stifle opponents.
Durant will sit out tonight’s game as well and that is a major break for the Lakers, though it remains to be seen how much. Durant’s insane scoring ability and versatility from the wing will, of course, be missed. But the fact is the Thunder have enough talent left in their lineup to give the Lakers fits on both sides of the ball and really force them into difficult positions.
It begins with Westbrook who is, essentially, playing like one of the best players in the league. His per-36 numbers are off the charts as he’s scoring, assisting, and rebounding like a madman. His intensity remains one of his best assets, but he is channeling it even better than he has in past years, finally seeming to reach the point where aggression and thinking out the game and ability intersect. Yes, he’ll still have some of those head scratching possessions where he dribbles the air out of the ball looking for a sliver of space to attack, but more often than not he is making excellent reads that, when combined with his superior athleticism, make him nearly impossible to stop.
Beyond Russ is a slew of quality players — especially Serge Ibaka, a player who has evolved into a threat from behind the arc while still blocking shots with tremendous effectiveness — who all seem to fit in properly to make this team competitive. Reggie Jackson is a starting quality guard coming off the bench who can also play next to Russ to form an explosive backcourt. Steven Adams can bang bodies with most big men in the league and has just enough ability as a scorer to make defenses pay when the try to treat him as a non-threat. Add in Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Andre Roberson, Nick Collison, and Anthony Morrow and this team really is stacked.
For the Lakers to compete, then, they will need to get extraordinary performances from multiple players, including Kobe Bryant. Kobe is likely to run into real issues with Roberson, a long and athletic defender who can play with him on the wing and in the post. Kobe will need to find ways to hit contested jumpers and then use the threat of that shot to get into the teeth of the defense where he can draw extra attention to create shots for others. Nick Young will also need to come ready to score and hit shots, as will Jeremy Lin. If these two can create buckets, it will open the floor for Jordan Hill and Carlos Boozer to score against rotating defenders.
Even if all this goes their way, the Lakers are still very much an underdog. The Thunder, even without Durant, are just a better team. They are, though, on the 2nd night of a back to back and playing on the road. Maybe this will be enough for the Lakers to steal a game.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet and ESPN. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.