The Los Angeles Lakers won the battle of 17-win teams on Sunday when they defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 101-87, behind Jeremy Lin’s season-high 29 points. Now the team will hit the road for the next five games, with the injury-riddled Oklahoma City Thunder first on the docket. The Thunder have created a little breathing room on the New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference by winning five of their last six games.
Frontcourt: Newcomer Enes Kanter was acquired from the Utah Jazz before the trade deadline and has been fantastic for his new team. In his 14 games with Oklahoma City, Kanter is averaging 17.2 points and 10.5 rebounds while shooting 56.4 percent. In Sunday’s 93-75 win against the Miami Heat, the 22-year-old tallied 27 points and 12 rebounds in 34 minutes. Kanter’s offensive skill set and strength make him difficult to handle down low and on the glass.
Filling in for the sidelined Serge Ibaka, along with Kanter, is second-year man Steven Adams, who recorded a double-double against Miami with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Laker fans may remember him for the scuffle him and Nick Young got into during the first meeting of the season between these two teams, resulting in the former’s ejection. Adams is also a physical presence around the basket, and he is sound on the defensive side of the basketball, virtually always in the right position.
With Kevin Durant missing the majority of the season to this point, and now potentially the remainder of the year because of a foot injury, the Thunder needed a scoring punch out on the wing. That’s where Dion Waiters comes in. Waiters was also acquired through a trade earlier this season, coming over from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Waiters is capable of high scoring outputs, but is wildly inefficient, thanks to poor shot selection and overall decision making.
Backcourt: Andre Roberson doesn’t contribute much to the stat sheet, but has good size at the shooting guard position that helps him play solid defense out on the perimeter. He plays with good energy on a consistent basis and understands his role and importance as an on-ball defender out on the wing. Because he understands what is expected of him, he typically refrains from doing anything outside his comfort zone.
Last but not least is MVP candidate Russell Westbrook, who has played a historical stretch of basketball the past few weeks. Westbrook has recorded nine triple-doubles this season in just 55 games played. He initially had his tenth triple-double until the league revoked it on Monday, claiming he was credited with an additional rebound. Regardless, Westbrook can do it all. He leads the league with 27.5 points per game, along with 8.7 assists and 7.3 rebounds in 34 minutes. Needless to say, the Lakers will have their hands full.
Keys to Victory:
Slow Down the Other Guys: Simply put, Westbrook is going to get his. He’s in a zone right now that’s absolutely absurd, and the Lakers have been a poor defensive team all season (28th in defensive efficiency). Their focus should be on slowing down everyone else, not allowing Westbrook to dish out assists at will. He’s so good because he can beat you in so many ways. Forcing him to beat you solely by scoring is your best bet.
Youth Minutes: All that is really left to play for in the final 14 games of the season for the Lakers is the development of their young players. Jordan Clarkson, Ryan Kelly, Tarik Black and Jabari Brown could potentially be young, cheap options for the team beyond this season. Therefore, they should be getting a heavy dose of minutes, especially down the stretch of close games to help them gain valuable experience.
Force Three-Point Shots on Defense: The Thunder are 25th in the league in team three-point field goal percentage, and Westbrook himself is at a mediocre 30 percent. Defensively, the Lakers need to pack the paint and cut off dribble penetration to force Oklahoma City to kick the ball out to the perimeter and launch from deep. Allowing the Thunder, Westbrook especially, to wreak havoc in the lane would result in a long night for Los Angeles.
Heading into tonight’s game, Lakers are 10.5-underdogs against the Thunder, via Sportsbook.ag.
Los Angeles Lakers (18-50) at Oklahoma City Thunder (40-30)
5:00 PM PST, March 24, 2015
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
TV: TWC SportsNet
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Thunder Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Andre Roberson
SF: Dion Waiters
PF: Enes Kanter
C: Steven Adams
Key Reserves: PG: D.J. Augustin, SG: Anthony Morrow, PF: Mitch McGary
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: Jordan Clarkson
SF: Wesley Johnson
PF: Ryan Kelly
C: Tarik Black
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