Records: Lakers 11-2, Thunder 5-8
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.2 (13th), Thunder 103.9 (24th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 99.8 (1st), Thunder 103.9 (12th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Thunder: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Terrance Ferguson, Danilo Gaillinari, Steven Adams
Injuries: Lakers: Avery Bradley (out); Thunder: Andre Roberson (out), Hamidou Diallo (questionable)
The Lakers coming in: Winners of 4 straight, including a Sunday night win over the Hawks, the Lakers are in the middle of a friendly part of their schedule they need to handle by racking up wins. Looking forward just a few weeks, the Lakers December is just a brutal mix of strong opponents and road games that will challenge them severely.
How this team handles that stretch will surely have a huge impact, not only on the standings, but in the overall view of this team as they progress towards a playoff push. Racking up wins now, then, against a part of the schedule that is “softer” is a way to give some needed cushion should things turn more difficult and/or trigger some adversity due to losses that come at a faster rate than the 11-2 Lakers are currently used to.
Zooming out from schedule talk, this team continues to do a few things well that have great impact on wins and losses.
Most notably, this team is monstrous defending the paint. This shows up in a bunch ways that go beyond them leading the league in blocked shots. Defending the paint so well means their perimeter defense applies more pressure and also means opponents dribble penetration is often swallowed up in ways that force decisions made under duress when the offensive player would typically just take a shot in the paint. This leads to steals other teams typically do not force which translates to winning the possession on many nights.
Consider this: the Lakers are 1st in blocks, but also 8th in steals per game, which translates to them being a top 5 team in turnovers forced per game. The Lakers offense has not been dynamic through 13 games, but one way you can win on the margins offensively is by selectively running and getting transition baskets. The Lakers are not a super successful team at converting their transition opportunities, but they rank 11th in the league in frequency of plays that are classified as transition chances while still ranking in the bottom 10 in the league in pace.
If this doesn’t entirely make sense, go read the 1st sentence of the paragraph above again. The Lakers are forcing teams into mistakes and then running out on those to try to get easy baskets. When those chances are not there, they’re running deliberate offensive sets built around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. This has worked. But it’s worked because their defensive philosophy of being amazing at defending the paint/rim has been the backbone of this team.
The Thunder coming in: OKC has lost 3 of 4, including a loss to the Clippers on Monday night. Despite these recent results and the Thunder’s 5-8 overall record, though, it would be a mistake to think this team isn’t (mostly) competing hard. Their lone win in this recent stretch came over a quality 76ers team and in two of the three losses were both by 2 points.
I say this because even though the Thunder traded Paul George and Russell Westbrook over the summer, they still have an intriguing group of front line talent that can keep them in games night to night. Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are a very good backcourt, Terrance Ferguson is a streaky but quality shooter, and Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams are a nice frontcourt pairing that really complement each other well. This starting 5 can play with anyone in the league and it’s why, despite the massive departures of George and Russ, this team is not at the bottom of the West standings.
Where this team struggles is with their depth. Outside their top 5, they have Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroeder as the only other proven NBA level rotation players currently healthy. You can add Mike Muscala here if you want, but he’s pretty fringe-y to me. Anyways, when you’re so reliant on your core 5 guys to win games, you’re going to struggle to win games even if you do not always struggle to keep games close and/or competitive.
Look at the offensive and defensive rating stats at the top of this piece to understand this better. The Thunder have a net rating that is flat/zero. They’re good enough to keep games close. They probably need a rotation level player or two more to turn this into a record that’s .500 or better.
Keys to the game: I hate to sound like a broken record here, but the Lakers need to win this game early and make the Thunder play from behind. OKC does not have the depth to build viable lineups over the course of a full 48 minute game, so putting them behind the 8-ball early and having to claw back with sub-optimal lineups is a recipe for them to lose. In other words, the Lakers need to avoid a slow start.
The stretch I will be eyeing closely is that 4 minute stretch at the end of the 1st period when LeBron typically goes to the bench and Rondo (or Cook) come into the game to run point. By that time JaVale has already gone to the bench in favor of Kyle Kuzma and there’s a possibility Caruso is already in for KCP or Danny Green as well. Anyways, if the Lakers can win this final stretch of the 1st period and take a healthy 6 to 10 point lead into the 2nd quarter, they’ll be well positioned to win this game going away. The Thunder can cut into this lead at different stretches during the game, but coming all the way back, taking a lead, and then holding off the Lakers over 36 game minutes will be very difficult.
So, while I can tell you “get LeBron the ball against Ferguson!” or “Gallo can’t guard AD, feed him!”, those are just the details in the bigger picture thing I’m talking about here. Get a lead, make OKC play their way out of a hole, and then just twist the screws to tighten things on them the rest of the way. Do this and the winning streak goes to 5. Don’t and…well…let’s not even talk about that.
Lastly, there’s a 2-3 things I hope to see tonight from an individual player level:
- Get AD some shots and scoring chances early. He’ll have Gallo on him and it’s just simple math to say this is a matchup the Lakers should be trying to exploit from the get-go.
- Alex Caruso, hit some shots, please. I love AC and think his intangibles should guarantee him a rotation spot. That said, the Hawks didn’t defend him at all and it was several misses in a row before he found his stride and started to score well enough that he wasn’t an offensive liability. I’d love to see him hit a couple of early 3’s after getting into the game.
- Box out, JaVale. Steven Adams is as physical any big man in the league. He’s going to try to walk you underneath the hoop, plant his flag, and grab ORebs. Adams grabs 3 offensive rebounds a night and of players who play more than 20 minutes a game, he is 7th in offensive rebound percentage. JaVale is not the most disciplined rebounder and is not know for his physicality on boxouts. That will need to be different tonight or Adams is going to eat his lunch.
Enjoy the game, ya’ll.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and NBA TV.
*All stats via stats.nba.com