Who wins West's marquee matchup?
Will the Thunder break through against the former champs?
The Lakers and Thunder begin their West semifinal series tonight. How does this matchup shape up? Our roundtable debates.
1. Fact or Fiction: Their rugged Round 1 series will hamper the Lakers.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fact. They used more energy than they should have to dispatch the Nuggets and sure could have used more than one day off before starting Round 2 on the road. That series also revealed how laborious it is for the Lakers to keep up with faster, younger players. They can do it, it just doesn't come easily or naturally to them.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: Fact. The Nuggets gave the Lakers all they could handle and L.A.'s reward for surviving was a quick turnaround travel day to OKC before the second round begins. Game 7 of the Denver series was mentally exhausting for the Lakers and a letdown at the start against the Thunder seems inevitable.
Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Fiction. They've been through the wars before. After Game 7 in the locker room, I was struck by how fresh the Lakers seemed. They'll shrug off the typical emotional drain that comes with a seven-game series and be ready for the Thunder. What's also surprising is that they're hardly banged up considering the rigors of this year's schedule. They've been very fortunate.
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: Fiction. Artest is fresh. Kobe can't feel worse than he did when he was sick. And although Bynum and Gasol got fatigued racing up and down at altitude for three games, they were forced to dig deep in Game 7 and they struck gold. That knowledge will serve them well now.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Fiction. They might be a little older, and a little slower, but this isn't anything new. They got a day off to rest. They'll be ready. Tired legs or not, it's the postseason. Coming through the condensed schedule, if anything, prepared the Lakers for this quick turnaround.
2. Fact or Fiction: Their nine-day layoff will hamper the Thunder.
Adande: Fiction. They'll be rusty and out of sync for a couple of quarters, but should be able to snap out of it by the second half of Game 1.
McMenamin: Fiction. Kobe Bryant called the Thunder "a bunch of stallions" after their first-round series in 2010, and Oklahoma City will come out of the gates in Game 1 as if they're running the Derby. The rest only helps them.
Palmer: Fiction. Could be a touch of rust but they'll shake that off quickly. The rest will help them. They've had nine days off after playing four games. The Lakers had one day off after playing seven. Advantage: Thunder.
Thorpe: Fiction. What they lost in rhythm they gained in rest and adjustments/improvements/knowledge of their opponents. If they lose Game 1, they have nothing to blame it on.
Young: Fact. I don't necessarily think it'll be a rust issue for the Thunder, but more an overeagerness to play. These are guys that are starved to play basketball. They absolutely live for it. And waiting nine days to get at it again, especially with the way the last game against the Mavs went, has to make the Thunder a bit anxious to get on the floor. It probably won't affect anything other than maybe the first 15 minutes of Game 1, but that might be enough to get in an early hole.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Thunder have the better big three at the moment.
Adande: Fact. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the highest-scoring duo in the NBA at 51.6 points per game and James Harden slots in perfectly at the third spot, capable of taking over a game for stretches and willing to recede when necessary. If Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum could pitch in 35 rebounds and 10 blocked shots a night the way they did last game, they and Kobe would get the nod. But they've been too inconsistent throughout the playoffs.
McMenamin: Fiction. It's a two-way game and Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol might be slightly less of an offensive trio than Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but the Lakers' big three have a clear edge defensively when Bynum and Gasol patrol the paint.
Palmer: Fact. Primarily because they bring it every night. Even on nights when Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook can't find their shot, they're still going hard. It also seems as though James Harden never has an off night. At this point, consistency is paramount in the playoffs and the Thunder have the more consistent big three. When the Lakers' big three are operating at maximum capacity, they've got it hands down. But those days are fewer and farther between, especially with Andrew Bynum smack in the middle of one of his patented funks.
Thorpe: In any one game, I'd choose L.A.'s big three. The Gasol-Bynum post-to-post action might be the best two-man action in the NBA today from two frontcourt players. But in a seven-game series, I'll lean OKC's way. More consistent, more mature, more spirited and invested toward each other.
Young: Fact. I'd even go as far as to say the Thunder have the best big three in basketball, period. Durant is obviously a scoring savant, Westbrook a never-say-die bulldog and Harden the creative artist. It's a perfect trio of differing styles, personalities and games. They all flow and work extremely well off each other, seamlessly interchanging. On-court chemistry has quietly been a massive improvement for the Thunder this season and it's because those three operate so well together.
4. Fact or Fiction: Metta World Peace will be a major X factor.
Adande: Fiction. He'll make Durant work harder and put up more shots to get his points, but he won't spend much time on the player who can hurt the Lakers the most: Westbrook. World Peace might have a scoring outburst or two. He won't swing the series. And his recent remarks indicate he won't be overly sensitive to Harden's presence.
McMenamin: Fact. He's already a major X factor in terms of media coverage, grabbing the first headlines before the series even started by claiming he's not going to dap up Harden before Game 1. His impact will only continue matched up against Durant on D and tossing up open 3s when Bynum and Bryant are double-teamed on O. If he can get in the Thunder players' heads while locking down KD, just might be able to surprise some people.
Palmer: Fact. First off, he's got to play the best defense he's offered up in years to fully make up for the seven games he missed, and I think he's eager to do so. Some of those well-timed 3s would also be nice. Good news is he's got fresh legs since he's played just once in 20 days. But he'll be a factor in another way too. The OKC crowd is going to ride him like he's never been ridden before. Payback time for that elbow. The crowd will be insane. I'd be surprised if L.A. wins a game in OKC.
Thorpe: Fiction. His defense is incredibly overrated most of the time. He takes a lot of bad shots. His basketball IQ is better than average, but since when does IQ add into an X factor? He'll make a big shot or two I'm sure, but he's just as likely to make a big mistake as well.
Young: Fact. Simply because without him, Durant might score 40 without breaking a sweat. There isn't anyone else on the Laker roster who has much of a prayer of checking Durant, outside of World Peace. Yeah, yeah, Devin Ebanks guarded Durant in that double-overtime game, but if you rewatch it, that was Durant missing a whole bunch of shots. World Peace defends Durant off the ball better than anyone and more than anything, gets under his skin a bit.
5. Fact or Fiction: OKC will bounce the Lakers from the postseason.
Adande: Fact. No team gets more from each playoff series than the Thunder, and they've played four since the last time they faced the Lakers in the postseason. They've grown while the Lakers have grown older. Hard to believe, but the other L.A. team would be a more problematic matchup for Oklahoma City.
McMenamin: Fact. Like the Bulls stubbing their toes on the Pistons before breaking through in the '90s, the Thunder are primed to take down the established championship guard of the Lakers. Kobe & Co. won't go down without a fight -- don't expect a meltdown like the Dallas series last year -- but I can't see them getting past OKC.
Palmer: Fact. The Thunder are better, deeper, hungrier, more focused and plenty rested. I've got the Thunder in the Finals and I won't change my thinking now. This is going to be another long, physical, strenuous series and I just don't think L.A. can win two of them in a row. Plus, the Thunder seem far more motivated. They're still fuming over their loss to the Mavericks last season. The Lakers' sweep at the hands of Dallas in 2011 seems like ancient history. Thunder in seven.
Thorpe: Fact. This fact is not written in stone, as a locked-in Bynum and Gasol could send L.A. to the next round. But to expect that to happen is not wise. I thought Denver would beat L.A. for this reason, and though I was wrong, I did not see enough to change my mind about their going forward. And OKC as a team is on the same page as never before.
Young: Fact. You just can't overlook the season series. Oklahoma City was rather dominant in the two wins and was on cruise control to a third before World Peace tried to dislodge Harden's beard from his face. The Thunder match up extremely well -- Perkins on Bynum, Sefolosha on Kobe, Ibaka on Gasol -- and have pieces to carry the scoring burden.