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Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Oklahoma City... OK, now what?

By Brian Kamenetzky

Maybe the tenth ring granted him powers of clairvoyance? Just as Phil Jackson predicted last week, the Oklahoma City Thunder have earned themselves a first round date with the Lakers, thanks to their 103-95 loss in Portland Monday night. On its face, the matchup appears favorable for the purple and gold, at least if the media is to be believed.

Obviously we'll have plenty more to say about the pairing over the course of the week, but it's never too early to poke it with a stick.

Among the first places observers will look for clues is the season series, and sometimes much can be gleaned. Still, the results should always be taken with a grain of salt, particularly in this case. Yes, L.A. took three of four from OKC this year, but two of the three were by three points, one coming in overtime. More importantly, the Lakers had the good fortune of seeing the Thunder three times before Christmas.

L.A.'s 111-108 win over Kevin Durant's crew on December 22nd left Oklahoma City 13-14 on the season. It was the last time they'd be under .500. Since, the Thunder have gone 36-18, and it's fair to say the team taking the floor Sunday won't be the one the Lakers dominated early in the season.

Conversely, it's tempting to read too much into Oklahoma City's total dismantling of the Lakers on March 26. The Lakers were horrible that night, and would have been pounded by virtually any team in the league. Not to discount what the Thunder did- those 48 minutes absolutely showed how dangerous they can be and made a very solid impression on Kobe Bryant- but much of that night's damage for the Lakers was self-inflicted.

The playoffs, as you may have heard, are a totally different animal anyway. With that in mind, here are five factors regarding this matchup on each side of the favorable/unfavorable ledger for the Lakers:

Favorable for L.A.:
  1. While it's possible to overrate experience in the playoffs, there's no question it matters. The Thunder have virtually none of it, and will have to open on the road against the defending champs.
  2. There are signs the Thunder haven't quite figured out how to do the little things needed to win tight games, losing 11 of 18 games decided by three points or less. One can question how well they're holding up under the spotlight, too. OKC has lost four of five down the stretch, including a critical misstep against Golden State Sunday evening. (Note: In fairness, one of those recent blemishes, a one-point loss to Utah in OT, probably should have been a win. Durant was fouled on his game winning shot attempt and should have gone to the line with a chance to win.)
  3. Undeniably explosive, Durant and Russell Westbrook are both mistake prone as well. They're currently third and fifth respectively in turnovers, and Westbook's assist-to-turnover ratio ranks 31st in the league. The playoffs are often about minimizing errors, something OKC's two best players will have to prove they can do.
  4. Oklahoma City doesn't move the ball particularly well, sporting the ninth worst assist rate in the NBA. As TrueHoop's Kevin Arnovitz noted in our media poll post linked above: "If I'm the Lakers, I think I want OKC, in large part because they're the easiest of the three teams to defend. When the Thunder are stagnating, they have trouble moving the ball in the halfcourt (and don't really have a pure "ball-mover" in their lineup). The Lakers' length will compound that problem even further." In a seven game series where every tendency is known, adjustments are constant, and points more precious, will OKC be able to adjust?
  5. You think L.A.'s bench has been unproductive? Try Oklahoma City's. The Thunder are one of three teams in the NBA providing fewer points off the pine than the Lakers. Beyond James Harden and the occasional contributions of Nick Collison, they have almost no scoring in reserve. Serge Ibaka provides a defensive presence, but it carpaccio-raw on the other end.
Unfavorable for L.A.:
  1. Westbrook has had his way with the Lakers this season, averaging 17.5 points and 8.3 assists, and shooting almost 47 percent, all above his season averages. He is incredibly quick, aggressive, and talented. Given L.A.'s well-documented struggles against quality (not just quick, but quality) points, Westbrook presents a serious challenge.
  2. The Thunder may be young and rambunctious, but they've played at an elite defensive level this year. Through Monday, they allow the second fewest points per possession of any Western Conference team, behind only the Lakers. But while the Lakers have slipped defensively over the course of the season, OKC has improved.
  3. In Thabo Sefalosha they have a player as capable of giving Kobe trouble as anyone in the league. He has the quickness to stay in front of Bryant, and with some serious go-go-Gadget arms, the length to disrupt Kobe's jumper as well. It's not a question of Sefalosha being a "Kobe stopper," but his skill on that end of the floor allows coach Scott Brooks far more flexibility than might otherwise have. In any playoff series with the Lakers, among the first questions asked is always "Who will guard Kobe?" The Thunder have a viable answer.
  4. Defending the Thunder is more than simply stopping Durant and Westbrook. In Jeff Green and Harden Oklahoma City has other weapons at its disposal. Even a guy like Nenad Krstic, despite perhaps the worst hair in the NBA, can provide offensive support via a solid perimeter shot assuming he's healthy (knee) for the start of the series.  (If he's not, the Thunder are much thinner up front, always a problem against the Lakers, particularly if Andrew Bynum is good to go come Sunday. And it's not like Krstic is Dwight Howard defensively, either. He's exploitable, as is Collison, on that end.)
  5. For a young team, the Thunder are very balanced in their home/road splits. 26-14 at Ford Center, 24-18 everywhere else. Impressive numbers indicating they may not freak out Sunday taking the floor in Game 1.

Overall, it's a matchup where almost every intangible favors the Lakers, but some of the more tangible stuff makes OKC a scary squad. Brooks' crew didn't get here simply on flash and athleticism. They play hard, play D, and have shown some poise throughout the season.

More than the Spurs or Blazers, the Thunder represent a wild card in the opening round. Of course, the greatest wild card is probably the Lakers themselves. Who will be healthy? How will they play? Is this a group able to put the pieces together well enough to escape a potentially tough series and build towards something bigger?

I think they'll be ok, but the Lakers long ago tossed certainty out the window. But even with their troubles, I don't see how the Thunder beat the Lakers four times in seven tries.

Next year, though, the Lakers might want to avoid these guys.