The electricity seems to be in the air across Los Angeles. It begins with the Lakers, who in Game 7 were terrific, shutting down the Denver Nuggets and getting the most out of both key and role players. That sort of effort will be required in each and every game in this upcoming series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that sat atop the Western Conference for the majority of the season.
An 8-7 record in April is most definitely not telling the tale that was the 2011-12 season for the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that has played at arguably a higher intensity level than most teams.
The Lakers went 1-2 against Oklahoma, winning perhaps the most memorable game of the season series, one that resulted in the loss of Metta World Peace for seven games as a result of a suspension. Still, the Lakers fought hard, and earned an overtime victory, but also established yet another storyline to accompany the rest.
Frontcourt: The Thunder showcase the league’s top scorer in Kevin Durant, who poured in 28.0 points to go along with 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists. Durant is electric when needed, boasting a shot that is unblockable, and automatic for the most part. He is the wrong person to have at the charity stripe, where he converts on 86 percent of his free throws. He’s terrific in the transition game. There isn’t too much that can be said about Durant because he is phenomenally gifted.
Serge Ibaka is a shot-blocking freak, who contests anything coming his way, rejecting 3.7 shots per game. Ibaka is great when given the ball, shooting 64.5 percent in the first round against Dallas, scoring 11.0 points, but struggles to keep possession, averaging nearly a turnover per game. He grabs his share of rebounds, but should be no challenge for the tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
At the center position is Kendrick Perkins, a veteran opponent of the Lakers. While he struggles to score many points, Perkins is a superb defender, providing a staunch presence that will look to limit Bynum and Gasol. On the offensive end he averaged just 3.7 points against the Mavericks, grabbing 6.2 rebounds. He has had a hip injury limit his production, one that may in fact limit his time in the series.
Backcourt: Perhaps the most dangerous player the Thunder possess is Russell Westbrook, a do-it-all type guard that scores, rebounds, passes, and defends extremely well. He did see his shooting percentage spill in each game of the first round. Westbrook has stolen three balls in four-of-his last five games, having averaged 2.3 steals per game. Russell will take the outside jumper if he has it presented to him, but is more dangerous driving to the hoop.
While Thabo Sefolosha gets the nod at shooting guard, he won’t see the bulk of the action, instead handing the time over to James Harden. Sefolosha is averaging 3.3 points in the playoffs against Harden’s 18.3. The southpaw Harden is superb at the pick-and-roll game, draws a ton of fouls, and makes teams pay for doing so. The league’s Sixth Man of the Year is turnover prone as well, coughing up the ball 2.3 times per game.
- The Lakers lead the overall playoff series against the Thunder by a margin of 4-2, defeating Oklahoma in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. The Lakers defeated the former Seattle Super Sonics 21-9 while they were in existence. Seattle won their first two series against the Lakers, but then would drop the next six, including the final one as the Thunder.
- Pau Gasol could not have chosen a better time to come up big than in Game 7 of the first round, becoming the fifth Laker in franchise history to have a line of at least 20-15-5. Gasol scored 23 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, and dished six assists. He joins Elgin Baylor (eight times), Shaquille O’Neal (four), Wilt Chamberlain (two) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (one).
- Thunder guard James Harden had 29 points, five rebounds, and five assists, becoming the first player with 25-5-5 off of the bench in a playoff game since Manu Ginobili did it for the Spurs in 2007, and only the fourth player to ever accomplish the feat in the post-season.
Keys to a Laker Victory:
Yes they are fast and high-flying, but no team is perfect. James Harden will have a chip on his shoulder for the aforementioned (and famous) incident with Metta World Peace. How does one aggravate a player? By exposing him. The more Harden commits an error, the angrier he will be, and the more opportunities will be created for the Lakers.
Limit Westbrook and Durant
Playing on the road is no easy task for the Lakers, but by no means does it mean that they will not be ready for their challenge. Where Kevin Durant might have an off-game, Russell Westbrook shines, and vice-versa. It’s an obvious suggestion, but an important one. Harden can score too, but is no superstar or supreme offensive threat. Harden scored over 30 points twice, both against Phoenix. In each game one of their two stars diminished, and gave off some of the workload to Harden. The Lakers are better off taking their chances with Harden and one of Westbrook or Durant rather than all three.
Sort through the Storylines, Set the Pace, and Ignore the Crowd
Without a doubt the Thunder boast the league’s most raucous fans. Their record of 26-7 at home is the same mark the Lakers own, and is bettered by just the Spurs and Heat. The Thunder might have just swept the defending NBA champions, but that record of 8-7 still looms, and for a reason. The Hollywood tale of this season just had to include a Derek Fisher against the Lakers meeting at some point of the NBA playoffs. Whether Metta wants to shake hands with the stars or the bench, it doesn’t matter, the Lakers have to go into Oklahoma and win Game 1, altering the course of the remainder of the series.
Best-Case Prediction: Lakers 104, Thunder 101
Worst-Case: Thunder 102, Lakers 93
Game 1, Semi-Finals, Western Conference
Los Angeles Lakers (4-3) at Oklahoma City Thunder (4-0)
6:30 PM PST, May 14, 2012
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Radio: 710 AM (English), 1330 AM (Spanish)
Game 1: Tonight
Game 2: Wednesday, at Oklahoma City – 6:30 p.m. – TNT
Game 3: Friday, vs Oklahoma City – 7:30 p.m. – ESPN
Game 4: Saturday, vs Oklahoma City – 7:30 p.m. – TNT
*Game 5: May 21, at Oklahoma City – TBD – TNT
*Game 6: May 23, vs Oklahoma City – TBD – ESPN
*Game 7: May 27, at Oklahoma City – TBD – TNT
Thunder Projected Starting Line-Up:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Thabo Sefolosha
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Kendrick Perkins
Key Reserves: G James Harden, G Derek Fisher, F Nick Collison