When the Oklahoma City Thunder locked into the No. 8 playoff spot in the Western Conference on April 12, the immediate challenge that came to the Los Angeles Lakers' minds was league-leading scorer Kevin Durant and how to stop him.
As the series shifts to Tuesday's Game 2, so does the Lakers' defensive focus.
Russell Westbrook, the Thunder's second-leading scorer during the regular season, is suddenly looking like the No. 1 threat to the Lakers after Ron Artest was able to bottle up Durant in Game 1. With Artest limiting Durant to 7-for-24 shooting in the first game of the series, Westbrook, the second-year point guard out of UCLA, went for 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting.
"If Durant is struggling scoring, somebody else is going to figure it out," Derek Fisher said after Monday's practice. "[Westbrook] was able to attack us in transition in a lot of situations where we either turned the basketball over or misses from perimeter shots."
The Lakers sprinted out to a double-digit lead midway through the second quarter before Westbrook asserted himself. Using his cut 6-foot-3, 187-pound frame and blazing speed to attack the rim again and again and again, he scored the Thunder's last eight points of the quarter to cut L.A.'s lead to eight at halftime.
"He got on fire for a little bit in the late second quarter, and he just continued," Andrew Bynum said. "We have to focus on stopping his thrust coming down the lane."
It isn't the first time the Lakers have struggled with stopping a quick, paint-seeking guard in the playoffs. Houston's Aaron Brooks upped his scoring average from 11.2 points per game in the regular season to 18.0 in his second-round series against the Lakers last year, eluding L.A.'s perimeter defenders as if they were stationary parking cones.
Westbrook averaged 16.1 points per game during the regular season but is averaging 18.6 in his five games against Los Angeles this season. The point guard had success similar to his Game 1 showing in the final regular-season meeting between the two teams, scoring 23 points on 10-for-13 shooting in a 16-point win by the Thunder on March 26.
"The kid is tough," Pau Gasol said. "He penetrates. He's quick. He's got a lot of size, athleticism, so he has all the pluses -- all the pluses to get in the lane and be effective."
When the perimeter guys get beaten, the Lakers' big men need to step up to help. They can learn a thing or two about stopping the Thunder's dynamic guard by emulating the Thunder's backup center. Oklahoma City's Nick Collison drew two offensive fouls on Jordan Farmar and Lamar Odom in Game 1, preventing their penetration.
"[Westbrook] was really quick in transition, even after made baskets, taking the ball from one end of the rim to the next," Odom said. "[If we] take a couple charges as a team, hopefully it will slow him down."
The temptation is to play off Westbrook. He shot just 41.6 percent from the field during the regular season and 22.1 percent from 3-point range. Because of Westbrook's handles and the spacing that exists on the court from Durant demanding extra attention, there is always a lane for the point guard to attack.
"He's got a double role," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "Obviously he has the top scorer in the league playing alongside him, and [Jeff] Green is their second- or third-leading scorer. So he has a playmaking guard's role, and until he feels the necessity or else the coach gives him the green light, he's got to keep operating in teamwork opportunities or offense. That's not unusual for a guard to wait until things transpire to really find his own game."
Odom warned about Westbrook's ability to turn a layup made by the Lakers into an opportunity to gear up with a full head of steam after an inbounds pass and respond with a layup of his own on the other end. The Lakers' shot selection can tamp down on opportunities for Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder to break out in transition.
"The big issue is we have to have good court balance, take good shots, so their run-out opportunities aren't available to them or they're more difficult than they've been up to this point," Jackson said.
Any coach will tell you a layup isn't just a good shot but the best shot in basketball, so one way to limit Westbrook's chances in the open floor is to attempt more layups and avoid outside shots that can turn into long rebounds when missed.
Gasol and Bynum combined for 32 points on 13-for-24 shooting in Game 1. Oklahoma City used Green and athletic rookie Serge Ibaka to front the post, preventing a steady stream of touches for Gasol and Bynum, but Gasol thinks L.A. can improve on touches for him and Bynum in Game 2.
"They're active and they collapse the lane really well, so you have to move the ball," Gasol said. "It's not going to get in on the first look. They force you to make the ball swing [to the other side] of the floor, and then you have to be smart how to put it in. I think we can still do a little better, but we did well trying to put the ball inside."
And if the Lakers' bigs can't naturally slow fast-break points from Westbrook and the Thunder by getting off down low?
"We just have to try to suck it up and get back on defense," Artest said.
Whatever Artest did on Durant worked in Game 1. Perhaps his teammates should heed his advice on stopping Westbrook.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.