Oklahoma City Versus L.A. Lakers PreviewWestern Conference Second Round
#2 Oklahoma City (47-19) vs. #3 L.A. Lakers (41-25)
Season series: Oklahoma City, 2-1
L.A. can win if…Kobe Bryant produces his usual playoff averages of 28-30 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol consistently play with energy and focus and Metta World Peace holds Kevin Durant well below his normal scoring average and field goal percentage. Even if all those things happen, the Lakers have to figure out some way to at least contain the explosive Russell Westbrook and they also must deal with James Harden, the Sixth Man of the Year who will be a nightmare matchup for a Lakers team that has one of the weakest benches among this year's playoff squads.
Oklahoma City will win because…Did you read the above litany of items on the Lakers' to-do list? Bryant is the most dependable Laker but he did not play well versus the Thunder this season; Bryant will likely have a very good series anyway and he may draw the assignment of guarding Westbrook down the stretch of close games (if there are any close games) but it is doubtful that the Lakers will have much success in the other areas mentioned above. Perhaps Peace's bump and run defense will bother Durant a bit but the Thunder's power forwards and centers are bigger, stronger and savvier than the Denver power forwards and centers who gave Bynum and Gasol fits in the first round. The Thunder's transition game will be very difficult for the Lakers to stop.
Other things to consider: The Thunder are one of three teams remaining in the playoffs that have a legit chance to win a championship (San Antonio and Miami are the other two); the Lakers struggled against a Denver team that is essentially Thunder-lite in the first round: the Nuggets have a quick point guard, energetic bigs and they thrive in transition; the Thunder have a much better (and bigger) quick point guard, veteran bigs who are energetic and they are even more dynamic in transition than the Nuggets.
This series could get ugly in a hurry considering the quick turnaround for the Lakers after their draining seven game battle against Denver and the scheduling quirk that forces the Lakers to play their first two home games on back to back nights after likely dropping the first two games of the series in Oklahoma City. The Thunder's long rest may make them rusty in game one but that will last for a half at the most and then they will run past the Lakers like the Lakers are stuck in quicksand. The talent and depth differential between these teams is really stunning. At this stage of their respective careers, Kevin Durant is at least as good if not even slightly better than Kobe Bryant (this is the first season that I placed Durant ahead of Bryant in my MVP rankings), while Russell Westbrook should be an All-NBA First Team guard (though, based on the media's MVP votes, he may not even be voted to the All-NBA Third Team) and James Harden is an All-Star caliber player as well. The Thunder's eight man rotation includes a nice mixture of speed, size, shooting, defense and passing, while several members of the Lakers' eight man rotation can be missing in action on any given night; the team's second and third best players--Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol--sleepwalked through game five and game six against Denver before becoming productive just in the nick of time to stave off elimination in game seven.
The Lakers' 96-87 game seven win over Denver provided a good illustration of how statistics can sometimes be deceptive. Kobe Bryant produced 17 points and eight assists, yet he had a huge impact on the game--far greater than the impact that LeBron James had during last year's NBA Finals in some games when his numbers were similar to Bryant's game seven numbers. The key difference between Bryant and James is that Bryant was an active participant while James was extremely passive; Bryant drew double teams by aggressively seeking position in his offensive "sweet spots" and then he made crisp passes when the double teams arrived: Bryant created the open shots that Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Steve Blake made, even on the plays that Bryant did not make the assist pass. In contrast, James quit during the 2011 NBA Finals, spending much of the series--particularly the crucial fourth quarters of several games--camping out in the corner with Jason Terry guarding him; James did not threaten the Dallas defense when he did this and thus did not create opportunities for his teammates.
When a reporter asked Bryant if it was difficult to play in such a "restrained" fashion, Bryant simply replied "five championships": Bryant has "trusted his teammates" and "made his teammates better" (or whatever cliche you want to mention) for most of his career, so no one should be surprised by how deftly he handled Denver's traps. Bynum and Gasol will receive a lot of credit for finally showing up in game seven but being productive in the paint against smaller, less experienced players while Bryant is being double teamed (and the Lakers are thus playing four on three) should be something that is expected and demanded not just once in the last three games of the series but rather on a consistent basis. As L.A. Coach Mike Brown said after game seven, Bynum and Gasol do not necessarily have to post huge numbers every game but they should bring high energy every game.
One of my chief barometers for the Lakers during the past several postseasons is that Bryant must score 28-30 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field in order for the Lakers to be successful. Bryant averaged a team-high 29.1 ppg on .448 field goal shooting versus Denver while also leading the Lakers in assists (5.0 apg). Despite that productivity and efficiency--comparable to the playoff numbers posted by Michael Jordan at a similar age during the Bull's second three-peat--the Lakers struggled to eliminate an inexperienced team that does not have a single current All-Star.
Even with the statistical boost provided by his monster game seven (23 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, four blocked shots), Gasol averaged just 12.9 ppg on .427 field goal shooting versus Denver, while Bynum's superficially solid numbers (16.7 ppg, .512 field goal shooting) belie his inconsistent effort at both ends of the court; Bynum admitted that he was not ready to play in game three and the same was clearly true in game six as well. The problem for the Lakers is that even if Bryant hits the scoring and shooting levels mentioned above he is unlikely to receive enough help to topple the talented and deep Thunder.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:31 AM