ESPNLA 710: Suns vs. Lakers, Tuesday, 7:30 PT
Los Angeles Lakers: Kendrick Perkins
That lull lasted precisely three games.
After a 1-2 start, the 15-4 Thunder have lost just two games. They're riding a six-game winning streak, and have put up 100-plus in 10 consecutive contests. Fourth quarters still present times when the reigning sixth man of the year might come in handy, but overall, OKC has moved forward in strong fashion. A game in Oklahoma City always represents a tough challenge, and this one doesn't figure to buck any trends.
For more perspective on OKC, I conducted an IM conversation with Royce Young, who covers the team for the True Hoop network's Daily Thunder blog. Below is the transcript.
Andy Kamenetzky: On the surface, it appears the post-Harden era has commenced without a hitch. Has it been that smooth?
Royce Young: Honestly, it has. I recently looked over the schedule and the only game I thought the Thunder probably would've won with Harden around was the opener against the Spurs. They clearly hadn't adjusted to not having him -- that was only about four days after the trade -- and they didn't close well. Otherwise, by pretty much any metric, not only are the Thunder winning, they're winning better this season. Bigger margin of victory. Better offensive efficiency. Better assist rate. Better defensive efficiency. I guess that's not all that difficult when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are still on your team.
AK: We've seen Harden serve as an important bridge between Durant and Westbrook in the fourth quarter. How do they operate down the stretch of close games without him?
RY: Basically it's all Westbrook and Durant, all the time. Like you said, Harden was an extremely valuable late-game player. When "Bad Russell" was in the building and playing wild and reckless, the Thunder could just take the ball away from him and let Harden run point and create. And don't get me wrong. There's still a very real fear about crunch-time situations in the postseason. Kevin Martin has fit in extremely well, except during late-game situations. Serge Ibaka is a bit more involved, but it's mostly all Durant and Westbrook. So far, it's worked pretty well. But that doesn't mean it's a lock to work smoothly in May.
This is off the wall, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. In OKC recently, there's been a discussion over who's better: Serge Ibaka or Pau Gasol. Who would you rather have?
AK: Ibaka. He's got two good knees (to the best of my knowledge) which makes him more immediately valuable than Pau. He's also nearly 10 years younger, a huge plus for the long term. And while Ibaka may not be as versatile, he seems like an incredibly hard worker intent on improving weaknesses. (Witness the improved jumper.) Plus, he and Howard would form an absolute wrecking-crew defensive frontcourt. Pau certainly has a better understanding of the game, and is light-years ahead at running an offense. But were Sam Presti to offer a straight swap, I'd say yes in a heartbeat.
You mentioned Martin's snug fit with the second unit, but how has Eric Maynor performed since returning from injury? I thought his absence flew under the radar last season.
MIAMI – When sizing up the Los Angeles Lakers for a potential NBA Finals showdown, few teams in the league are as equipped with tape measures as the Heat.
Miami's two key offseason acquisitions bring a combined three seasons of experience from facing Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Co. in the NBA Finals. Now, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis see a far more potentially dangerous Lakers team developing in Los Angeles, with the additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, than any of the previous squads each of their teams met from 2008 to 2010.
“They've got a lot of great players over there, Hall of Fame players,” Lewis said. “But we feel like we can match up with not just one particular team, but anybody in the league. We've got guys who can play multiple ways, and a team that can play multiple styles, regardless of opponent.”
The Heat's combination of experience, flexibility and versatility are considered their main strengths with a roster anchored by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Barring injuries, conventional wisdom suggests the Lakers are capable of matching -- perhaps even surpassing -- the Heat's star power in would shape up as the most anticipated NBA Finals matchup in decades.
But Lewis and Allen believe that a series with so much at stake against the Lakers, or any opponent out west, will ultimately be decided by the team with the more reliable supporting cast. That was the case last season, when even the best postseason of James' career might have come up short had it not been for Bosh's late-playoff return from an abdominal injury or Shane Battier's breakout play early against Oklahoma City or Mike Miller's magical shooting display in the Game 5 series clincher in the Finals.
By adding Allen and Lewis to a supporting cast that already proved to be deep and effective enough to win a title, the Heat think they took significant steps to further compliment their catalysts and boost their chance to repeat.
Don't give me any of that "Yeah, but the Lakers could have won!" stuff, either. In the NBA, when a team beats another 4-1 over a seven-game series, it's better, and usually by a lot. Period.
Of course, that Lakers team didn't have Dwight Howard. Or Steve Nash. Or bench scoring in the form of Antawn Jamison. Needless to say, the Summer of Jitch (Jim and Mitch -- feel free to go with Miim if you'd like) has changed the conversation significantly. With that in mind, how do the new-look Lakers match up with other contenders around the NBA? In an effort to froth up some preseason debate, we're chatting up bloggers around the Association, starting in OKC with our man Royce Young, proprietor of the outstanding Daily Thunder:
Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’Lakers: So what was the reaction in Oklahoma City to the Dwight trade?
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: I'm not going to go all Kevin Durant and pretend it didn't catch my attention. Because it's huge. It's unavoidable to act like this doesn't shift the balance of power toward Los Angeles. The Thunder very likely had a fairly wide open road back to the Finals next season, but now there is a legitimate road block in the way. I wouldn't say it was complete fear. Oklahoma City didn't start shaking or anything. But it was definitely attention-grabbing. The Thunder are still very good, match up well and have weapons to combat what the Lakers have, but to try and ignore what L.A. has done is silly.
LOL: Yeah, he's very McKayla Moroney about it all. (Note: Joke stolen from J.A. Adande.)
RY: Jimmy Fallon asked KD and Harden about it Monday night and that was the exact thing they did.
LOL: I can see why they'd be annoyed. They're young, and don't want to look like they're concerned about anything other than themselves and their team. But how do you think Howard impacts the matchup? This is even before we get to Nash, and an improving bench for L.A.
RY: See, I thought the Nash signing was maybe a bigger deal, at least in terms of impacting the Thunder. Because nothing really changes too much for OKC. Kendrick Perkins was on the roster to defend Andrew Bynum and now he just moves to defending Dwight Howard. But Nash, he makes everybody more threatening. Pau Gasol is a fourth option, but with Nash running the controls, he's a monster, massive threat. Howard improves the Lakers defensively, no doubt. He makes them a little more versatile. But I don't think too much has changed in the way the Thunder will approach playing the Lakers. Not to say there's an advantage there now for L.A., but OKC won't have to adjust too much to match up.
Perkins has to be thankful, too. Mitch Kupchak just kept him relevant.
LOL: Mitch is a giver, there's no question.
For any Lakers fan, any NBA finals without the purple and gold is by definition a disappointing series. The Lakers are a franchise that openly cries "championship or bust," and that standard has been enthusiastically adopted by the faithful. Thus, being on the outside looking into a trophy chase always leaves a bitter taste.
However, this particular Finals may really stick in the Laker Nation's craw. The Miami Heat aren't just a super-team distastefully forged, and the Oklahoma City aren't just scary good, scary young and Western conference residents. They both feature foils to the supremacy of Kobe Bryant. LeBron James has long been viewed by Lakers fans as prematurely crowned "King" at Kobe's expense and Dwyane Wade has received favorable Mamba comparisons as well. (That Flash broke Bryant's nose/concussed him during a freakin' All-Star Game doesn't help, either.) In the meantime, Kevin Durant has already lapped Bryant as a scoring machine, but a title could make it impossible to argue, career achievement aside, he hasn't passed Bryant altogether. Thus, either teams basking in championship glory packs a potential double-whammy for Lakers fans.
AP Photo, Getty Images
Unless we're talking Smush, once Lakers, always Lakers, right?
Still, from a pure basketball perspective, this should be a massively entertaining series, and I'd hate to see Lakers fans sulk themselves out of any sense of enjoyment. The solution is to tab one team as the lesser of two evils, then root hard against the other. With that in mind, I'm here to help break some ties.
Pros to the Heat Winning
• Ronny Turiaf and Pat Riley, ex-Lakers still held in good esteem amongst the fan base, will get their first and seventh rings respectively.
• Over the last few years, some have questioned James' drive, and whether he's more consumed by his game or brand. Granted, his improved outside shooting and post game have quieted that criticism to some degree. But for those unconvinced, perhaps the championship demons exorcised will result in complacency, along with opportunity knocking for a revamped Laker squad to capitalize.
• Whenever the Heat falter, the rumor mill kicks into overdrive with scenarios bringing Dwight Howard to South Beach. Obviously, all gossip must be treated with a grain of salt, but it stands to reason a title decreases the odds of Miami dealing for Superman, which keeps hope alive for an L.A. landing.
• Realistically speaking, the odds favor this bunch winning one title. I mean, let's just be honest. So if they are destined to break through, it might as well happen during an "asterisk" season, right? With any luck, that will be the only "Heatle" title, and their time together will carry as little gravitas as possible.
• For that matter, they Heat would also win without having to go through either Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard in the East. Let the discrediting process begin!
• Despite logging just 83 minutes in the regular season and (likely) none in the postseason, Eddy Curry will get a ring, making Kwame Brown the lone member of the Brown-Curry-Tyson Chandler "straight from high school into the 2001 NBA lottery" trio without a championship. And Laker fans never tire of jokes at Kwame's expense.
• The Heat knocked Boston out of the playoffs the last two seasons, which didn't just allow Lakers fans to rejoice, but also prevented the Pierce-KG-Allen Celts from tying or even besting the title count of the Kobe-Gasol Lakers. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the old saying goes.
• South Beach + June weather + championship parade = wall-to-wall eye candy. And this celebration will be televised. I'm just sayin'.
Here are five takeaways from the Lakers' final game of the 2012 season.
1) Kobe Bryant really wanted to win this game
I mean, really, really, really wanted to win this game. And this desire was made perfectly clear from the outset, as The Mamba was in attack mode with 24 capital "A's." 42 points would be impressive under any circumstances, particularly when you consider the bag of tricks emptied while unleashing Bryant's arsenal. But what really drives home Kobe's relentless pursuit was his five dunks. Let that number sink in for a second.
I'm guessing most fans would choose as their favorite a spectacular reverse throwdown to cap a baseline drive, but really, whatever selection isn't nearly as significant as there being five to choose from. That's a lot of jumping around for a 33-year old, who admitted after a 2011 postseason posterization of Emeka Okafor he saves these jams for a rainy day. Remember, dude ain't as young as he used to be. A contest to save the season certainly qualifies as the proper time to empty the tank, and Bryant didn't hold back.
He's tough out there," said Durant about Kobe in his postgame interview with TNT's Craig Sager. "He's a warrior."
Russell Westbrook took over Game 4 down the stretch.
For a look ahead to Game 5, we had an IM conversation with Royce Young, who covers the Thunder for the TrueHoop network's Daily Thunder blog. Below is the transcript.
Andy Kamenetzky: What stood out most to you in the Thunder comeback/Lakers collapse?
Royce Young: The obvious thing people want to point out is Kobe Bryant's shot selection the final few minutes, but what stuck out to me was Russell Westbrook. He's been steadily improving at sensing his moments, where he can separate from Kevin Durant, and he picked an outstanding place in Game 4. He did the heavy lifting, and Durant carried them across the finish line. But like I said, it seems Kobe-ball had a lot of people talking.
AK: I watched the fourth quarter again, and there were definitely possessions where he went into "head down/Mamba/iso" mode and most weren't terribly fruitful. But Metta World Peace and Steve Blake also over-dribbled some possessions. Andrew Bynum was getting fronted, and as a team, they adjusted poorly. In the meantime, the Lakers' D went to pot.
Oh, and the mother of all bad turnovers from Pau Gasol!
It was just horrible execution on both sides of the ball, and OKC capitalized.
RY: One thing that's really hit home is just how fragile a playoff game can be. Each possession is priceless. The Thunder have valued the ball more than ever, and have approached games with a crazy amount of focus. Down seven, down 13, they see it as just pressing on and not letting up until the clock officially runs out. Whether that's just the natural evolution of maturity, or a voice in the locker room like Derek Fisher, the team doesn't lose focus even when times are tough.
Brian Kamenetzky: Still, the Lakers have played three straight competitive games. Royce, do you see in those any reason for Thunder fans to worry?
RY: To be frank, no. The Lakers are in a position where they need to win three straight, two of those games in Oklahoma City, and the Lakers weren't a strong road team this season. It's obvious not much separates the teams, but the Thunder are deeper and more talented than the Lakers. Unless they get tight and anxious about closing, they should handle their business.
Some are probably thinking about Game 4 in Dallas last season for the Lakers. Is this team different, or could they be headed toward a clunker in Game 5?
There is a popular saying that a series doesn't really begin until the home team loses. History, however, says that when the home team holds serve in the first two games, the series is over. Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, teams up 2-0 have won 94.2 percent of any series. Even the Lakers, among the most successful franchises in sports history, have only won 10.5 percent (2-of-19) after falling into this hole. The last successful bucking of the odds required a miracle shot from Derek Fisher (ironically now playing for the squad looking to eliminate the Lakers). That's what ultimately made the inability to close out Game 2 even more painful. A split in Oklahoma wouldn't have put the Lakers in the driver's seat, but an upset at least would have felt somewhat feasible. Instead, a battle uphill from the outset has taken on the feel of K2.
For more thoughts on Game 3, we conducted an instant-message exchange with Royce Young from the True Hoop network's Daily Thunder blog. Below is the transcript.
Andy Kamenetzky: As much as Game 2 was about the Lakers' failure to execute down the stretch, it was also reflective of the Thunder not giving up and remaining opportunistic. How characteristic is that of their nature?
Royce Young: Very. Game 2 Wednesday was extremely similar to Game 1 against Dallas in which OKC came back from a seven-point deficit with a few minutes remaining, capped by a Kevin Durant game winner. The Thunder have made a habit out of those types of wins. They feel like as long as they have time on the clock, they're alive. Which they should, because at any moment Durant, Russell Westbrook or James Harden can go on a burst and get them back in a game.
Failure to execute late in the game proved costly for the Lakers.
AK: Unfortunately, yes. Not necessarily at the end of a game, because the Lakers were 10-4 this season in games decided by three points or fewer. But a loss of focus is always a threat to plague them at any moment. All season, this team has suffered inopportune and self-induced lapses. Sometimes, they've resulted in losses. Other times, wins became more complicated than necessary. But either way, the Lakers are a team of bad habits, which makes slippage in the last two minutes not necessarily stunning.
But full disclosure, I was jaw-dropped by this. I just kept staring at the TV with this far-gone look on my face, like Private Pyle during his last scenes in "Full Metal Jacket."
RY: Allow me to be honest, as well: I had given up on the Thunder after Bynum's hook shot went down to make it seven. I just didn't see a way back, not with the way they were executing offensively.
AK: Speaking of execution, you've mentioned before the Thunder's periodic tendencies to go iso-happy and bog the entire offense. Wednesday night felt like one of those nights. Do you agree, and if so, to your eye, what caused it?
RY: I'm not entirely sure the Thunder played all that differently than they did in Game 1, but two things stifled the offense: The pace favored the Lakers, and the shots didn't fall with great regularity. Durant had attempted only eight shots entering the fourth quarter, instead choosing to kick out off his drives. The Lakers adjusted well on Westbrook and forced him into a poor shooting night. And the bailout guy, Harden, wasn't able to get going. That's where that ugly, ugly offense can come from. It's a strange thing, since they're so wildly talented on that end. But sometimes, it just doesn't work. But the Lakers deserve a lot of credit for that.
Brian Kamenetzky: I thought the Lakers' adjustments in the pick-and-roll, with the aggressive trapping and activity from the bigs, frustrated OKC. Coverages were more proactive and consistent, a big change from Game 1. Combine that with the work they did limiting the Thunder's transition opportunities, and it seemed like OKC was frustrated.
There are losses. There are bad losses. And there are bad losses that carry the sting of 1,000 bees -- all born and raised in Oklahoma, naturally -- working in unison to attack as one. A primo chance to drastically alter the tone of this series went out the window, and the Lakers will have to work overtime to dig themselves out of a hole. And by "overtime," I mean "quite possibly beyond their capabilities." And by "hole," I mean "grave."
On tonight's Lakers Late Night, we broke down the break down over the final two minutes, along with ...
- The magnitude of the wasted opportunity. The Lakers blew a seven point lead with two minutes remaining, fueled by giveaways and mismanaged possessions.
- A rough fourth quarter for Kobe Bryant, who not only turned over the ball in a critical spot with 1:45 remaining, but also missed his final five shots in a 2-of-7 final frame.
- Yet another disappearing act for Ramon Sessions. Two points, no assists, one turnover. He wasn't the only member of the supporting cast coming up short, and along with a lack of outside shooting from the team (2-of-13 from 3-point range) it was too much to overcome, despite a great effort defensively.
- A look ahead to Game 3. Is there any way the Lakers play themselves back into the series?
Despite Sessions' presence, sets still take forever to initiate.
1) Get the ball up the court faster to initiate the offense earlier
During the era of "Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom bringing the ball up so Kobe doesn't have to do everything," a turtle with a decent handle might have taken the place of either without anybody noticing. Whether because the directive to slow tempo was taken too literally, or because Fisher's declining speed and LO's generally laid back style, it felt like the court was covered in molasses. Eight second violations were regularly flirted with, and precious time was frittered away over the entire 24 seconds. As a result, someone was often forced to take a bad shot.
Mike Brown arrived in L.A. with the stated goal of getting into sets faster, and with Ramon Sessions eventually in the fold, that objective should have become even easier. However, slow migration end-to-end remains a habit, particularly Monday in Game 1, and it's a habit in need of immediate breaking. I'm not calling for a radically pushed tempo. The Lakers don't have the personnel to live in transition, and getting into a foot race with the Thunder is a losing proposition. This is simply a matter of milking possessions for their maximum opportunities. Any early deep position gained by Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol gets negated if they're watching the ball handler meander upcourt for 3 seconds while a defender pushes them off a spot. The Thunder's defense is being far too much time to set in general. And should any of Game 1's offensive confusion bleed into Wednesday's proceedings, an extra four or five seconds to sort through the mess could go a long way towards salvaging possessions.
It's fitting NBA games are now flooded with "Men in Black III" ads (there's even one with an NBA tie-in), because after Game 1, Lakers fans had the urge to "flashy thing" themselves. Who'd blame any member of the Laker Nation for making every last memory of a 29-point beatdown instantly disappear? That's not a bad plan for the actual players, too. Dwelling on what can't be changed is pointless and could perhaps hinder moving forward. Of course, this is also contingent on having addressed the problems causing their nightmare. Otherwise, the "flashy thing" would just be creating space in their brains for a brand-new set of horrors.
To help preview Game 2, Brian and I conducted an IM chat with Royce Young from the True Hoop network's Daily Thunder blog. Below is the transcript.
Andy Kamenetzky: I'll start with a question for Royce. Wha happa?
Russell Westbrook owned the left and right elbows.
Brian Kamenetzky: How sustainable is OKC's performance? The starters shot 63 percent. As a team they hit 60 percent between 10-15 feet. Russell Westbrook barely missed from 10 feet-plus, etc. Even if the Lakers don't do anything differently -- and they'd better do some things differently -- do you expect the Thunder to come back to earth?
RY: That's definitely about as good as it gets, although not completely out of left field. The Thunder have rolled up big offensive games before: Game 3 against Dallas, in the regular season against Miami and Chicago. But the mid-range game can dry up at a moment's notice, 3s might not fall and transition opportunities might not be available. Then it's about executing in the half court, getting to the line and finding easy buckets. They're capable of doing that every night, actually doing so isn't entirely realistic.
Is there an adjustment the Lakers can make to slow down Westbrook and Kevin Durant?
AK: Metta World Peace must do better staying with KD despite the constant screens. MWP's bulk can work against him fighting through bodies, but he's succeeded better than on Monday. Considering that his were the freshest legs of any Laker, I was disappointed by his general lack of defensive tenacity. As for Westbrook, when he's running pick-and-roll to that elbow spot, the Lakers bigs need to hedge harder to challenge shots or make him give up the ball. I realize the recovery after showing is tough for someone like Andrew Bynum, but Russ' looks were too clean, and he pulls up so quickly to begin with.
RY: Here's the dirty little secret with Westbrook: Everyone thinks you give him that mid-range shot and take away his path to the rim, but it's actually the opposite. Give him the jumper, he'll eat you alive. That's the hinge to his game. It opens the door to everything else. Actually, in hindsight, let's scratch my previous paragraph from the record. I don't want anyone to know this.
BK: If Mike Brown waits for game previews to get his scouting report for that night, I think you're OK.
Among the talking points:
- The Lakers looked seriously disorganized -- not to mention tired -- on both sides of the ball. The effort was evident, but the execution ranged from erratic to non-existent. The inability to practice and prepare did them no favors.
- The Thunder's Big 3 (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden) picked the Lakers apart. The defensive schemes against that formidable trio are in need of serious tweaking.
- Ramon Sessions had a horrible game (two points, three assists, very little defensive presence), and his playoff impact has been, generally speaking, underwhelming. For the Lakers to have any shot at pulling the upset in this series, their point guard needs to pick up his production. And like Sessions, the bench was M.I.A.
- The brightest spot was definitely Andrew Bynum, who notched a double-double and was easily the most effective Laker on the court. Like his teammates, Bynum suffered some defensive lapses, but that was more a byproduct of the overall chaos than anything else. If the Thunder continue to play him as often in single coverage (as opposed to Denver's approach, where Drew was often doubled before the catch), he could do some damage.
- The Lakers need to figure out ways to get Kobe Bryant better shots. Against defenders like Thabo Sefolosha and Harden, iso-heavy looks won't cut it.
- Why on earth did Mike Brown play his starters so late into this game, given their workload over the last week, the series schedule against Oklahoma City, and the unnecessary risk of injury? There was absolutely no prayer of a comeback, so any chance to recharge the batteries should have been taken.
- Devin Ebanks' strange ejection.
For a look ahead to the series and Game 1, I spoke via instant message with Royce Young of the True Hoop network's Daily Thunder blog. Below is the transcript.
We meet again, friend.
Royce Young: I was most impressed with the way the Thunder closed games. Last postseason, Oklahoma City's crunch-time offensive struggles became a well-discussed topic, with Russell Westbrook the focus. This playoffs, it was the opposite. Three big fourth quarters are what won the series in four. Of course, just because James Harden was able to dice the Mavericks doesn't mean it will be so with the Lakers.
AK: As long as you mentioned Harden, might as well jump right into the prominent B-plot. Do you expect any lingering trepidation or animosity from Harden toward Metta World Peace?
RY: I don't think so. Carrying anything like that onto the floor would be too obvious. And it wouldn't reflect well on the team's focus. You're not there to get payback on Metta. You're here to advance. A vendetta in Game 1 doesn't make much sense. Then again, it'll have Thunder fans charged up, and many people feel as if World Peace is feeding the beast with his comments.
AK: Well, I was there as MWP addressed this issue, and actually took his words at face value. Starters never go out of their way for pregame handshakes with opposing reserves, so why would anyone necessarily expect it from Metta? And I honestly understand why he doesn't think now's the time and place for a reconciliation of sorts (if there's even a feud to begin with). These guys are about to enter competition. Frankly, I doubt Harden wants MWP to seek him out before Game 1 anyway. It would be awkward for both.
RY: For the record, I totally agree with that assessment.
AK: In any event, Harden is so important for OKC. You can make an argument he's their most important player, which is why I don't put much credence in the Lakers' double-OT win, Harden missing the second half and all.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
High on the list of intriguing storylines in this series will be the battle between the NBA's two leading scorers.
The prospect of facing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the postseason has for most of the season conjured incredibly pessimistic images for Lakers fans. As the regular season wound down you could practically hear Adrian's pre-Drago speech to Rocky ringing throughout the city as most prayed the Lakers would leap through whatever logistical hoops required to avoid the Thunder until the Western Conference finals. But steadily the Lakers built momentum, solving some of their road woes and finding some actual support in the supporting cast.
Two games into their first-round matchup against Denver, things looked even better. Four games after that, they seemed much, much worse. Saturday, a strong performance pushed the Lakers through Game 7, finally earning a date with those very Thunder, starting Monday night in Oklahoma City. Nobody, save those viewing the world entirely through purple-and-gold-colored glasses, will make them a favorite -- nor should they. But despite the inconsistent effort vs. Denver, it's not out of the question the Lakers, through strong post play, attention to detail defensively, the intensity shown eliminating the Nuggets, and perhaps a healthy dose of ultra-rustic Siberian training can give OKC a genuine test.
Maybe even pull the upset?
The series features serious star power, with each team trotting out a high-end big three. Oklahoma City's combo of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden brings, among other things, scoring punch and athleticism, while the Lakers counter with the length, experience and skill of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Lovers of subplots and intrigue will have a field day, too, starting with the NBA's two leading scorers facing off in a battle of old vs. new guard. Metta World Peace and Harden will share the floor for the first time since this happened. Bynum and Gasol each have narratives to repair.
And, of course, the Lakers face a motivated Derek Fisher in a playoff series. The citizenry fears getting .4'd.
With all that in mind, here's a first look at the matchup ...
SEASON SERIES -- Oklahoma City 2-1
1. Thunder 100, Lakers 85 (Feb. 23, Chesapeake Energy Arena): The Lakers finished the first quarter up 23-19, but were outscored by 19 the rest of the way. Bryant finished 7-of-24 from the field, while Durant popped for 33.
2. Thunder 102, Lakers 93 (March 29, Staples Center): Again, L.A. got up early but was thoroughly outclassed after the first quarter. Durant and Harden were relatively quiet, but Westbrook went off for 36. Again, Kobe struggled (7-of-25).
3. Lakers 114, Thunder 106, 2 OT (April 22, Staples Center): The Lakers limited OKC to 14 fourth-quarter points, erasing an 18-point deficit and pushing the game to OT. Kobe again struggled overall (9-of-26), but hit huge shots late and ate up Westbrook (3-of-22) defensively. Big games for Gasol and the Lakers' bench.
Following Friday's thumping in San Antonio at the hands of the Spurs, Sunday's tilt with Oklahoma City takes on a little extra significance. First, mentally it would certainly benefit the Lakers to play a strong game against an elite Western Conference team. Losing would run their record against San Antonio and OKC to an uninspiring 1-5, not exactly a top shelf omen looking ahead to the postseason.
Like most of his Oklahoma City teammates, James Harden can soar through the air like a majestic bird.
Not good. To preview Sunday's action, we hit up the always insightful Royce Young, host of TrueHoop's Daily Thunder Blog with a few questions...
1. The Thunder put up points more efficiently than just about anyone in the league (2nd in efficiency), but the D has been good-but-not-great (9th). How good are the Thunder, really, on their own end? Where are the strengths and weaknesses?
Royce Young: The Thunder are extremely vulnerable against a good pick-and-roll team. Kendrick Perkins, while a wonderful post defender, struggles hedging, showing and helping. Scott Brooks tries to combat this by going small with Durant at the 4, but that leaves the Thunder weaker on the glass. It's been an issue for OKC this season and a reason the Thunder have had problems with San Antonio and the Clippers, both good pick-and-roll teams.
Two other things the Thunder struggle with defensively are 1) defending the perimeter and 2) defensive rebounding. Teams have been known to get hot from the outside against OKC because the Thunder are a bit slow in rotating the shell to the wings and corner when a guard penetrates against them, which opens up looks in bulk. And any time you give teams extra shots off the offensive glass, you're asking for trouble.
2. How has Derek Fisher fit in with the Thunder, on and off the floor?
RY: It's been a really strange thing with Fisher, honestly. His signing was billed as him being a new backup point guard to Russell Westbrook, but I'd contend he's barely played any point. James Harden runs much more point guard with the second unit as Fisher often just finds his way to the corner and waits for a kickout. He's been a steadier presence off the bench than rookie Reggie Jackson, but if his role is to essentially be a shooting guard, the Thunder might be better off using Daequan Cook -- a much better 3-point shooter -- more in that role.
Brooks seems to have fallen in love with sticking with Fisher for extended stretches, which has led to curious minutes for Fisher at times. Again, he's an upgrade from Jackson, but his role has been a tad confusing.
Brown told reporters at shootaround Friday in preparation for L.A.'s game against the Houston Rockets that the Lakers have reached out to the league seeking clarification as to why both of Griffin's dunks on Gasol -- a putback in the first quarter and the poster-worthy jam in the third -- weren't called as fouls against Griffin.
"I’m waiting to see an interpretation on the call because it’s a heck of a play [but] I thought if you led with your forearm, I thought that’s an offensive foul," Brown said. "But maybe I don’t know the rules that well. It will be interesting to make sure that I have an explanation or understanding of what the rules are."
Brown said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has reached out to the league office on behalf of the team, searching for answers.
Gasol took umbrage with Griffin's Mozgov-like dunk after the game Wednesday.
"You don't really see what happened," Gasol said. "It was quick, a hit-and-run kind of thing, right? The ball went in, I was on my ass, I woke up, I stood up and told the referee I had a f---ing forearm on my face, on my throat, and that's something that needs to be looked at."
Brown said Griffin's first-quarter dunk on Gasol also should have been an infraction.