LOS ANGELES -- A preview of Sunday's showdown at Staples Center, by Jonathan Mathis...
This is a chance for the Los Angeles Lakers to prove they are real. And there's no better way to convince the entire world than on Sunday, when the Lakers face the Oklahoma City Thunder, arguably the team to beat in the Western Conference.
With two games remaining on the regular season schedule that officially ends on Thursday at Sacramento, the Lakers (40-24) are seven games back of first place in the West, which they won't finish at the top but can dominate against the Thunder in the final home game. The team who went 5-2 in Kobe Bryant's absence was routed in San Antonio. Two days removed from a demoralizing loss, the Lakers as a team can redeem such an uninspiring disappointment at Staples Center in their traditional white jerseys, and avoid going 1-5 against San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
What to watch for on Sunday is how well the Lakers match against the Thunder, a powerful team in contention for a possible NBA Finals appearance. The last time these two teams met, the Lakers were embarrassed in their 103-92 loss. If the Lakers lose, they would no longer own supremacy in the Pacific Division. The Clippers, a crosstown rival, could seize full control with three games left, and the Lakers haven't been on top of their game against the Thunder.
That is not a good sign. Every time they take center stage it is hardly competitive, but to stay ahead in a footrace for the Pacific Division crown, then the Lakers must beat Oklahoma City. It's hard not to envision the Lakers losing, now that players are standing around watching the Kobe Show after he returned from a shin injury. In prior memory, the Thunder outhustled, outran and outplayed the Lakers on their home floor. The Lakers are thankful for the return of their superstar, and with Bryant on the floor, consecutive wins to end the season are likely. But the flawed Lakers will have to overcome weaknesses to beat the Thunder.
1. Stop relying on the Kobe Show: It's too often that the Lakers become too complacent and lackadaisical with Bryant on the court. The starting five, including the bench -- whenever Bryant is not taking a breather -- stands around and watches in an uninspired performance. The common style seen routinely by the Lakers is to give the ball to Bryant, then watch him produce magic single-handedly with his ability to score.
2. Tighten up on D: It's imperative for the Lakers to lock down the perimeter and force the Thunder to attempt awkward shots that would detain and disrupt the best scorer in the league, Kevin Durant. It's the primary focus, after all, turning up the defensive intensity and even more so in the second half. The hiring of Coach Mike Brown was simply to install defensive principles in switching on pick-and-rolls and defending the paint.
This, it seems, will slow down explosive guard Russell Westbrook, who is not intimidated by the two seven-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. He won't hesitate to drive the lane for an easy two and will draw the foul. If Gasol and Bynum -- in favor of the Lakers -- with their size and strength -- raise their level of play, they can be x-factors and stop dribble penetration of guards and control the temple. The Lakers front line is a tough task for Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, although they both are troublesome. In recent weeks, the Lakers defense has slightly improved.
3. Ramon Sessions needs to play like a legitimate point guard. The difference for the Lakers offensively has been the acquisition of Ramon Sessions. For the first time in years, the Lakers finally addressed their point guard position, stealing a well-rounded Sessions before the trade deadline. From a basketball standpoint, Sessions is the best point guard the Lakers have ever seen since Magic Johnson. He can move off the ball, create plays and get his teammates involved, as the Lakers are quicker and more aggressive.
It's strange with a veteran guard Derek Fisher wearing a Thunder uniform, and as he runs the point, Sessions may have an advantage with his quickness and youth. In the grand scheme of things, Sessions can handle the ball and move off the ball in which Gasol and Bynum can get touches in the post.
4. Consistency is vital: There’s no question the Lakers are a playoff team, but they may not have enough consistency to match against Oklahoma City. The inconsistencies have undermined the Lakers, and lacking in that department doesn't resolve the problem going into the postseason. A good start would be defeating the Thunder by staying aggressive, diving for loose balls, and not allowing second-chance points.
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