On the heels of a tough (road) defeat at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, which dropped the Lakers to 15-20 (W/L) on the year, one might expect a bleak outlook heading into a showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday at Staples Center. Well, you’ve come to the wrong place, as I was left with a feeling of hope following the loss. Make no mistake about it, obviously, five games below .500 is nothing to smile about. That said, the tremendous amount of tenacity the team showed during that comeback attempt, and the belief that Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard could be back much earlier than originally anticipated has me in a more optimistic mood at this point.
The Thunder are a two-headed monster on the offensive end, obviously led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. In the last meeting, a 114-108 loss in Oklahoma, the Lakers fell victim to a tremendous (first-half) shooting display by Westbrook, and simply were never able to recover. As has been the case with this team, perimeter and transition defense absolutely destroyed them during OKC’s 41-point second quarter.
The Lakers can weather a 30+ point game from Durant, but it’s when Westbrook also matches him with 30+ of his own that teams are at the mercy of the Thunder. This has never been more evident than in looking back at recent Lakers vs. Thunder box scores. Of the previous four regular season meetings, the one game the Lakers were able to come away with was a game that Kobe Bryant decided to test his fate at defending Westbrook. Whether Bryant can duplicate that defensive effort or not, the speedy point guard was limited to just 3-22 FG and three turnovers in one of his worst performances of 2012. Coincidentally, that was also the game where little-known reserve Jordan Hill emerged from obscurity with a 14 point, 15 rebound performance. Very similar, mind you, to the performance we just witnessed from Earl Clark (vs. San Antonio).
Frontcourt: It goes without saying, Kevin Durant is one of the preeminent scorers in the NBA. Winner of the previous two scoring titles, Durant is putting up 28.1 points, a career-high 4.2 assists, and 7.8 rebounds per game. At a reported 6’9″ (while likely closer to 6’10” or even taller), Durant is such a difficult player to defend that all you can ask of MWP (et al) to do is stay in front of him, swarm/pressure him when possible, and make the shots as difficult as you can.
If the Lakers are to defeat the Thunder, they’ll have to keep Serge Ibaka off the backboards, and make sure he is matched up against someone that will preoccupy him on the defensive end. Ibaka averages 2.9 blocks in just over 32 minutes per game, but does a ton of his damage as a weak-side defender, especially when not forced to play defense on his own man consistently. When Ibaka roams, whomever Mike D’Antoni matches against him could be open or several backdoor cuts and open looks if played properly.
Backcourt: As mentioned, Russell Westbrook is the main backcourt player that you must concern yourself with when facing the Thunder. For as much criticism as he receives, Westbrook is in the midst of the best season of his career. He’s currently averaging 21.8 points, 8.5 assists (career high), and 5.1 rebounds per game. In the open court, the man is a all-out terror. Trouble is, in the absence of Harden, he’s even become more of a natural playmaker.
Thabo Sefolosha, while his statistics may not impress you, tends to do all of the unheralded dirty work it takes to succeed (as a team) at the highest level. Beyond the defense and effort, Sefolosha can also bury you if you leave him open from behind the arc, as he is shooting 46.7 percent over his last five games from that distance.
Keys To Victory:
Limit All The Other Guys – Kevin Martin, currently struggling with his shot (36.4 percent FG over his last 5 games), is as streaky as they come. You cannot permit him to break out of a slump by surrendering open looks on the perimeter. Nick Collison is another player that generally plays well vs. the Lakers. As a no-frills player, the Lakers will have to match and exceed his effort and intensity off the bench.
Make Life Tough On Durant and Westbrook – We know they’re good, and we realize it is an extremely tall order, but you have to find a way to at least make the game as difficult as you can. Durant is going to hit shots, but the defense will have to limit him from getting into his “sweet spots” or comfort zone. The same can be said of Westbrook. As fast, strong, and explosive as he is, you will never completely shut him down. Just the same, you have to make things difficult for him by limiting the floor space he can operate within. Whether that involves showing him different looks (defenders) or doubling him when he dribbles up top, the Lakers will have to find a way to swarm and manipulate him on the defensive end.
Simply Play With Pride, Passion, and Heart (From The Start) – The Lakers cannot afford to wait around for the miraculous comeback against any team, let alone a team as dangerous as the OKC Thunder. “Failure to launch” would be the phrase I use to sum up the first 30-plus games of the season. The Lakers can no longer afford to give anything other than an total-team maximum effort from here on out.
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Thabo Sefolosha
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Kendrick Perkins
G: Kevin Martin F: Nick Collison
Oklahoma City Thunder (27-8) at at Los Angeles Lakers (15-20)
7:30 PM PST, January 12, 2013
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: Time Warner Sports Network
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)