The Lakers come into tonight’s game having given up an incredible 408 points in their last three games. The most embarrassing game in the stretch was the Lakers’ franchise record 48 point home loss to the Clippers. The Lakers have since played one game in Denver, but return home for today’s matchup. Even for a lottery-bound team that may be somewhat desensitized to losses, the team needs to regroup and keep today’s game competitive.
For the Thunder, Russell Westbrook is playing some of the best ball of his career and – Westbrook haters aside – his team is better for it. The Lakers will have their hands full containing Westbrook and Kevin Durant and will have to shore up their defensive struggles to stay in the game. Anything less than 100% effort will likely result in another deflating home loss.
Frontcourt: The Thunder lineup has become very unconventional recently as an injury to Thabo Sefolosha has pushed Kevin Durant to the backcourt. Perry Jones III takes his spot at small forward. Both starting center Stephen Adams and Jones are little more than placeholders in the starting lineup, and while they are very young, they have been staggeringly unproductive. In their recent loss to Phoenix, Adams and Jones logged just 22 minutes combined and finished with a mind boggling one rebound and two missed field goals between them. It goes without saying that head coach Scott Brooks will relieve them early in the game, allowing Caron Butler to log some time and get acclimated with his new team.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, Serge Ibaka is a one man frontcourt. He is second in the league in blocks per game at 2.55 and is solid on the glass. He is also averaging a career best 15.1 points per game, and has become one of the better mid range shooters in the league. On the season, he is shooting nearly 47% from the top of the key and at the elbows, which is especially impressive for a big man.
Backcourt: With Sefolosha absent, Kevin Durant slides to the shooting guard spot, bringing back memories of his days in Seattle. Although he struggled at the position as a rookie, Durant is leaps and bounds ahead of where he was as a player at that time. Regardless of the position he is playing, he will score and he will score in bunches. There isn’t a Laker – or quite frankly, a human – on this planet who can shut Durant down and the best game plan for the Lakers may be to force him to beat them by himself (not unlike how some other teams choose to defend Kobe Bryant).This is a lot easier said than done as Durant has become a very effective passer, averaging a career high 5.5 assists a game on the season and coming off of a February in which he averaged 7.2 a game.
Russell Westbrook flanks Durant in the backcourt. Tonight’s game will be just his eighth game back from injury and despite looking sluggish in the first few (three straight Thunder losses), he has bounced back nicely and is having another strong statistical year. He has put up otherworldly numbers in limited minutes in his last five games. Reggie Jackson can be a force off the bench, but he has recently seen his minutes reduced as Scott Brooks inexplicably continues to favor playing Derek Fisher over him.
Keys to Lakers’ Victory
Defensive Effort: The Lakers might lack the personnel to lock teams down every night, but even so, the number of points they’ve surrendered in the last three nights is alarming. They need to step up their defensive intensity as they have almost no chance of winning this game if they give up 130+ points again.
Box Out: The Lakers’ chances on the glass don’t look promising as the two teams currently bookend the league in rebounding differential, with the Thunder first in the league at +4.7 and the Lakers dead last at -7.4. That being said, rebounding is a part of the game that is highly correlated with energy and effort and to avoid another embarrassing home blowout, the Lakers need to hustle and battle on the glass. The onus also lies on Mike D’Antoni to make adjustments. He simply cannot continue playing Wes Johnson at the four, especially against a supersized Thunder frontcourt.
Don’t Settle for Triples: The Lakers are sixth in the league in three point field goal attempts per game and that is largely a product of Mike D’Antoni’s offensive schemes. However, with the return of Xavier Henry, the Lakers have a full platoon of athletic wings. Instead of settling for long jumpers, the Lakers need to drive the ball into the heart of the Thunder defense, specifically Serge Ibaka. The Thunder frontcourt is diluted and if the Lakers can get Ibaka into foul trouble, Steven Adams and Perry Jones will provide little resistance on the front line.
Heading into today’s game against the Thunder, the Lakers are 13 point underdogs via Sportsbook
Oklahoma City Thunder (46-16) at Los Angeles Lakers (21-42)
12:30 PM PST, March 9, 2014
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC SportsNet
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Thunder Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Kevin Durant
SF: Perry Jones III
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Steven Adams
Key Reserves: PG: Reggie Jackson, SF: Caron Butler, PF: Nick Collison
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Kendall Marshall
SG: Jodie Meeks
SF: Kent Bazemore
PF: Wesley Johnson
C: Pau Gasol
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