April 22, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) makes a shot past Los Angeles Lakers power forward Pau Gasol (16) in the first half of the game at the Staples Center. Lakers won in double OT 114-106. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
All signs point to a decisive Thunder victory. Can the Lakers thrive in their underdog role?
For the first time since they traded for Pau Gasol in February 2008, the Lakers are underdogs in a playoff series. It's easy to see why. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who host the Lakers tonight in Game One of their second-round matchup, were the stronger squad by far in the regular season, won two of the teams' three head-to-head regular-season contests and hold home-court advantage. They've been resting and healing for nine days since tying a ribbon around their first-round sweep of the Dallas Mavericks on May 5. At Chesapeake Energy Arena the Thunder were a superb 26-7 this season, while the Lakers lost more than half their games on the road. The Thunder have the better coach, less mercurial top-line talent and enough accumulated playoff experience to put to rest any concerns about their youth. It's very possible that four games from now we Laker fans will wish our team had bowed out quietly against the Nuggets and spared us the weeklong humiliation that may lie in store.
When the Lakers last met OKC in the playoffs, back in the first round in 2010, the Thunder were rising upstarts who won primarily with stellar defense. Their identity has shifted since then. They've become an offensive powerhouse, finishing the regular season second in the NBA in offensive efficiency, thanks to the maturation of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the emergence of shooting guard James Harden as a lethal third option. They're still fairly strong on D, ranking 10th in defensive efficiency during the regular season. In the paint Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison make life painful and easy baskets rare for opponents. No longer, though, do we wonder how OKC can keep up with the best offensive teams in the league. They're one of them, and if Mike Brown is ever going to weave the defensive magic he was brought in to produce, now would be a great time.
The challenges start at the point-guard position. You know how in the first round Ty Lawson blitzed the Laker D with incredible speed to the rim, making Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake appear to be nailed to the floor? Westbrook is a bigger and stronger but just-as-fast version of Lawson. He'll help the Lakers out with one or two awful shooting nights, but keeping him out of the lane consistently will be next to impossible. Sessions, for all the nice things he does for the Laker attack, is an average defender at best and can't handle Westbrook one on one. At times Kobe Bryant will check him, but Kobe can't expend max energy on D since his scoring is so critical. At times Metta World Peace will give Westbrook a different look, but he'll be needed on Durant detail. Maybe Devin Ebanks can take Westbrook for short stretches, but he looked overwhelmed against Denver. You see the problem here. And it only gets worse when Harden's in the game and there are three elite perimeter scorers to worry about.
Of the OKC stars it's Durant, the newly crowned scoring champion, who presents the least reason for concern in this series. That's because MWP is one of the few guys in the league who can trouble KD one on one. Metta knows how to make Durant uncomfortable - body him up, knock him down on occasion, swipe at the ball when it's brought low - and he knows this is his moment. MWP was put on the earth to guard guys like Durant, and his seven-game suspension is now kind of a good thing since it kept his legs fresh for the task.
At the team level, keep an eye on the Thunder's turnovers and free-throw attempts. They were the most turnover-prone team in the NBA this year, but the Lakers were easily the worst team when it came to forcing turnovers, so this is weakness-on-weakness. Whether OKC can get to the line is a matter of strength-on-strength. The Thunder were the best at generating (and making) free-throw attempts, while the Laker D was the best at preventing them.
When the Lakers have the ball they'll have to score more effectively than they did against OKC in the regular season. Across three games they averaged just 1.02 points per possession, well below their season average. They've had particular trouble generating points inside. Although none of the Thunder big men are as large as Andrew Bynum, they're all tough and talented. Perkins and Collison have good strength and know how to keep guys like Bynum from receiving the ball in his preferred spot. Ibaka is the league's best shot-blocker by a huge margin. Neither they nor OKC as a team, however, excels on the defensive glass. The Lakers are a strong offensive-rebounding team and punished Denver in that respect in the first round. They'll need a ton of second-chance points in this series since their shooting numbers will be poor to disastrous.
They'll also need Kobe to score often and efficiently, which he couldn't do in the three regular-season matchups. He averaged over 24 a game against OKC but shot horrendously, missing more than two-thirds of his attempts. Obviously if that trend doesn't reverse itself, the Lakers have no hope of advancing.
In so many ways, this feels like the end of the road for the Lake Show. Against the Nuggets they got away with their trademark flakiness, but just barely. Nothing in their track record suggests they're ready to buckle down for a best-of-seven siege of a rising superpower. Game One could be especially grim. The OKC crowd will be rabid and the Lakers will still be recovering from the drama of their first-round Game Seven. Maybe they can spring an upset in Game Two, but their best bet is to take Games Three and Four back at Staples and hope the gathering pressure starts to affect the young Thunder. This seems unlikely. The Lakers, outside of Kobe and MWP, aren't mentally tough enough for the massive challenge ahead of them, and if the first two games get ugly the locker room could start to come unglued. Gloomy But Honest Prediction: Thunder in 4.
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