The All-Star break could not have come at a better time for the Lakers. Even when the team brings back players, others take their place on the injured list. Point guard Steve Nash continues to try and play, but has failed to finish each of the last two games he has started and is unlikely to play in tonight’s game. Steve Blake will play, but has been bothered by his surgically repaired elbow.
Awaiting the team in this final game before All-Star Weekend is the Oklahoma City Thunder, home to the Western Conference’s best record, and MVP front-runner, Kevin Durant. The Lakers will need a lot to go right if they plan on pulling off the upset.
Chris Kaman has been the Lakers best player for the past week. He is averaging nearly 23 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks in the Lakers past three games, and has been the only player capable of generating his own shot. He will have a tough battle against the Thunder front line. Kendrick Perkins is one of the strongest low-post defenders in the game, and Serge Ibaka is sure to be lurking behind him, as one of the league’s leading shot blockers. Shawne Williams jump shot will be key as Ibaka will have to stay a step or two closer if Williams is making jumpers. The same can be said for Wesley Johnson keeping the long-armed Durant out of the key.
Defensively, the Lakers are facing an uphill battle. Kevin Durant is the MVP of the league so far and is nearly unstoppable at this point. His ballhandling allows him to get wherever he wants on the court and his length makes his shot extremely difficult to block. Durant is also averaging more than seven assists in February and one of his favorite recipients is Ibaka. Ibaka has also grown into a much more consistent offensive threat who can knock down open jumpers from anywhere on the court.
Off the bench the Thunder will bring the always active Nick Collison, as well as rookie Steven Adams who is virtually as tough as Perkins. It will be on the Lakers to match the Thunder’s fortitude.
If the Lakers plan on winning this game, the backcourt will have to outplay their counterparts. And that is no easy task. Reggie Jackson has been excellent as Russell Westbrook has missed the majority of the season thanks to knee surgery. He is athletic, explosive, and a very solid shooter. Thabo Sefolosha continues to be one of the best wing defenders in the NBA, but has turned into a more willing, and able shooter.
Kendall Marshall will be back in the starting lineup with Nash unlikely to play, and he will have to do a good job of controlling tempo and knocking down shots. The Lakers do not want to run with the Thunder. Steve Blake will also continue to tough it out despite being bothered with minor injuries, and he will have to figure out a way to get his jumper going against a top flight defender. He is the closest person to a leader the Lakers have left on the floor and his veteran presence is much needed.
Keys To A Lakers Victory
Three-Point Shooting: Make no mistake about it, the Thunder are a more talented team than the Lakers. But the three-point shot is the equalizer in basketball, and it represents the Lakers best chance of keeping this game close. Marshall, Blake, Johnson, Williams, and Kelly can all get hot and the Lakers will need a big game from two or three of them from deep. They must be careful, however, from getting carried away as missed three-pointers lead to long rebounds and fast breaks. And with Kevin Durant on the other side, you never want to let him get going.
Limiting Kevin Durant: Durant’s game has grown leaps and bounds in the last couple of years as he is now an amazing all-around talent capable of filling up the box score. The Lakers need to find a way to limit his contributions as a full Durant box score means doom for them. Something like the 31-8-5-4 line he posted in the first matchup between these teams, will lead to the same result as that game. He will get his points, but limiting his assists and steals in particular, means the other players aren’t having as big of an impact, and the Lakers aren’t turning the ball over. Both of those things need to happen.
Don’t Get Pushed Out Of The Paint: Kendrick Perkins is a bully who is difficult to move off the block. Serge Ibaka is behind him swatting away every shot in sight. Behind them they have Steven Adams, who is taking after Perkins in every way, and Nick Collison, an active defender adept at controlling the boards and taking charges. These guys can make it difficult to get baskets inside, but the Lakers can not be deterred, especially Chris Kaman. An over-reliance on jumpers can allow the Thunder to get out on the break, and that could push this game out of reach quickly. Kaman has to stay aggressive and the guards need to mix in timely drives with three-point makes. If they can do these things, they have a chance.
Heading into tonight’s game, the Lakers are +11.5 against the Thunder via Sportsbook
Oklahoma City Thunder (42-12) at Los Angeles Lakers (18-34)
7:30 PM PST, February 13, 2014
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC SN
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Thunder Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Reggie Jackson
SG: Thabo Sefolosha
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Kendrick Perkins
Key Reserves: PF: Nick Collison SG: Jeremy Lamb C: Steven Adams PG: Derek Fisher
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Kendall Marshall
SG: Steve Blake
SF: Wes Johnson
PF: Shawne Williams
C: Chris Kaman
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