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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Oklahoma City Versus L.A. Lakers Preview

Western 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:31 AM

20 comments

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20 Comments:

At Sunday, May 13, 2012 11:14:00 AM, Blogger Al Fahridi said...

Solid preview, as usual.

All variables considered OKC should be able win this series with relative ease. There is only one thing which "should" go the lakers way, and it's play-offs experience. I highlighted "should" because, as you pointed out, the Lakers (not named Kobe) showed the exact contrary during the Denver series: the inability to finish off the opponent and stay focused on the task at hand. Game 4 included, they played smart and took advantage of the Denver deficiencies. Game 5 was a truly horrible showing - they can't afford anymore the "flip-the-switch" swag, which was so typical of the Lakers back-to-back championiships.

In order for them not to be humiliated by the Thunder, the Lakers will have to fight hard every second. I really don't know whether they are mentally capable of doing so as a team.

At this point, Metta World Peace could very well be the lakers' third (if not second) best player, at least in terms of energy and heart brought to the game. While Pau Gasol is certainly declining, I still think he should have a bigger role on the offense than Bynum (what is your take on this?). For the Lakers to be successfull (which here would mean avoiding a sweep), Bynum should really focus on defense, rebounds and intimidation, not "his touches" (yes, I've come to despise the guy. I could not s stand watching him sit alone during a team huddle in game 6).

I liked how Kobe handled the double-teams in game 7 (and how particularly Blake responded). What do you think it will be OKC defensive strategy? Single coverage for all the "big three" (as I recall they did in the regular season, but I might be wrong here)?

Thanks and keep up the great work

 
At Sunday, May 13, 2012 11:34:00 AM, Anonymous I Give Up said...

Wins Produced says that Kobe was the 5th most important contributor to the Lakers winning the series, and that Kobe did not even play well...

This is reaching levels of the absurd at this point. I don't even know how to properly explain the error in believing that Kobe was the 5th most important Laker in terms of contributing to winning. It seems that if they are that disconnected from reality (in a basketball analysis sense), the effort to convince them would outweigh the benefits.

 
At Sunday, May 13, 2012 2:48:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

I think you're overlooking one key aspect for Oklahoma City: their tendency to rush, take bad shots, and turn the ball over - especially under pressure in key situations.

It comes down to maturity and experience and they have shown an alarming lack of both the last couple of postseasons. They may overcome it by winning this series but it's premature to assume that they will until they actually overcome the mental blocks.

The talent gap will not matter much if Durant insists on taking contested 20-foot jump shots and Westbrook puts up wild shots and turns the ball over down the stretch of close games, while the other three players look for the ball in vain.

This series will be an interesting barometer to see if the Thunder finally mature as a legitimate contender. A tougher test will await in the semifinals (probably against San Antonio).

 
At Monday, May 14, 2012 1:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Al:

OKC has been successful using Sefolosha as the primary defender on Bryant, but the Thunder--like most teams--will either send some double teams toward Bryant or else have Sefolosha shade Bryant toward certain areas of the court where there will be more defensive help.

Bynum has more of an inclination to bang in the low post than Gasol does, even though Gasol is more skilled and has better footwork. Coach Brown cut his teeth in San Antonio and is trying to turn Bynum/Gasol into a latter day Duncan/Robinson. The Spurs used Duncan in the low post because he was bigger, stronger and younger than Robinson; Robinson operated out of the high post, much like Gasol has been doing this season. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Bynum is not Duncan and Gasol--while he is a better offensive player now than Robinson was near the end of his career--is not the defensive presence that Robinson was for two San Antonio championship teams.

Peace played well near the end of the season and in game seven but based on that small sample size alone I am not ready to call him the Lakers' second or third best player.

 
At Monday, May 14, 2012 1:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I Give Up:

I agree that you should give up reading WP numbers and/or trying to make sense out of such nonsense.

 
At Monday, May 14, 2012 1:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

The Lakers ranked 30th (i.e., last) in the league in forcing turnovers, so don't hold your breath waiting for this to be the Lakers' salvation versus OKC. You are correct that the Thunder can be turnover prone but the Lakers are not equipped to exploit that weakness.

You may not always like Durant and Westbrook's shot selection but that scoring duo has been pretty effective this season.

The Thunder are clearly a legit contender and they are about to demonstrate just how far the Lakers have fallen from that category.

I agree with you that the Spurs will pose a significant challenge to the Thunder. I did not like how the Thunder played at the end of the season and that is why I picked the Spurs to win the West.

 
At Monday, May 14, 2012 8:44:00 AM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Hoping that the Thunder will self-destruct with turnovers and bad shots may not be the most positive strategy but it's the best chance the Lakers have. They seem to have lost that killer instinct and the ability to impose their will on their opposition - heck, even the often ridiculed Knicks have a better track record of blowing teams out.

It's analagous to playing hard, keeping the game close until the fourth quarter, then hoping that Lebron quits on his team. It may not be a high percentage strategy, but what other strategy will give you a better chance of winning?

I'd give the Lakers a 25-30% chance of winning the series. They may catch lighting in a bottle with turnovers or more likely, Durant and Westbrook may throw up 5-10 bad shots every game and throw enough bricks to build a house.

 
At Monday, May 14, 2012 8:46:00 AM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

As for the Thunder, this series will be the tipping point to see whether they grow up to become legit contenders. They clearly have the potential to reach that level but I'm not willing to crown them just yet.

 
At Monday, May 14, 2012 2:31:00 PM, Blogger $9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

At +350, I think the Lakers offer value. Gasol & Bynum will have a much easier time with the likes of Collison, Perkins and Mohammed then the taller McGee and Mozgov; Bynum & Gasol can score over every player on OKC, and won't have anyone like McGee blocking their favorite flips, jumpers & hooks. If OKC crashes down, well LAL have spent 2 practicing their counters and might actually execute.

World Peace will play every game, not just one, and has consistently slowed Durant over the years (although they may need him on Harden). Kobe can slow Westbrook for stretches. The bigs can ignore Perkins and Collison to help and then safely recover.

Maybe Blake has found his inner Steve Kerr and will shoot 40% on (utterly wide open) 3s. Maybe Sessions just needed that one series to realize that playoff ball is far more intense than he was ready for. Maybe Barnes won't play and can focuse on completing his brick house.

On the other side, jump shooting teams suffer more deeper into the playoffs. Perkins, Ibaka, and Sefalosha made lots of jumpers in March against the likes of Indiana, but in Games 5, 6, 7 of a playoff series the rim shrinks, the muscles tense, and everything is rushed. At that point, OKC, like every other team, relies on their stars or the rare role player that shines.

OKC is rightly favored, but I don't think they're 3.5 to 1 favorites.

 
At Monday, May 14, 2012 4:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

I don't think that "hope" is ever a strategy. The Lakers' strategy should be to find a way to convince Bynum and Gasol to play hard every game; those guys need to run, not trot, and they need to spend most of the game in the paint at both ends of the court. Another strategical aspect is to run sets that make it easier for Bryant to score; set screens that enable him to get to his sweet spots so that he does not have to do everything off of the dribble.

However, the basic problem that neither "hope" nor strategy can address is that the Thunder are younger and faster. An intangible but real problem is that the Thunder appear to be hungrier. We all know that Bryant is hungry to win a sixth title but how many other Lakers are as motivated as he is? The Thunder are chasing their first rings (except for Perkins and Fisher).

The Thunder are already legit contenders; they made it to the WCF last year and posted the second best record in the West this season. We don't know if they are champions just yet--that is why the games are played--but they are definitely legit contenders. The Lakers got swept out of the playoffs last year and have not been particularly impressive this season, so there is no reason to believe that they are legit contenders or that they can beat a legit contender in a playoff series.

 
At Monday, May 14, 2012 4:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

9WO:

Gasol does not like to battle with physical players like Perkins and he is not as athletic as Ibaka so I don't know why you would like either of those matchups for the Lakers. Bynum's effort level is very inconsistent and the Thunder big men are tougher and more experienced than Denver's big men so there is no reason to think that Bynum will do any better in this series than he did in the previous one. Bynum may have one big game but he will also have at least one or two subpar efforts.

World Peace's physicality will bother Durant to some extent but the Thunder have two other weapons--Westbrook and Harden--who will give the Lakers major problems. Bryant will probably guard one of them at key stretches of the game but then the other one will kill the Lakers. This is like the 2004 Finals when whichever Detroit guard Bryant did not defend murdered Gary Payton.

Sessions is a good reserve/solid starter. He is an upgrade over Fisher but Fisher was the worst starting point guard for any playoff team in the league (note that he comes off of the bench now that he plays for a legit contender). Sessions is quick but he is not quicker than Westbrook and he certainly is not stronger than Westbrook.

Blake had the best playoff game of his career in game seven. The phrase "regression to the mean" comes to mind. He may not hit that many threes in the entire series versus OKC.

I don't know if 3.5 to 1 is right but the Thunder should be substantial favorites.

 
At Monday, May 14, 2012 5:25:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

We all agree that Thunder should be substantial favorites but 3.5 to 1 is probably overkill.

 
At Tuesday, May 15, 2012 5:59:00 PM, Blogger $9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

Game 1 certainly made me look foolish, although the Lakers looked decent for about 10 minutes.

OKC seems to be the best version of a new kind of NBA team (although Doug Moe and Paul Westhead might argue about "new"). Each player plays at maximum effort while on the floor on D (trapping, digging, chasing TOs), offense (break on everything) and rebounding (offensively and still getting back). Because of teh max effort, starters play fewer minutes while the bench gets more minutes than a trditional team. The Lakers, a traditional team, slow it all down, play methodical, don't trap all over, or take quick shots; they reserve energy as a style, but also because their bench is subpar.

That's a hypothesis. I think hockey has seen this trend, where 25-second, max-effort shifts allow energetic fore-checking deep in the opponents zone. Pressure and pace create turnovers and opportunities. No one plays 35 minutes anymore, 4th lines don't get skipped, and they pressure the puck like crazy.

 
At Tuesday, May 15, 2012 6:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

9WO:

Your theory/analogy may be correct but there is a simpler explanation for what happened in game one and what will happen in the next three games: the Thunder are both more talented and deeper than the Lakers. The Thunder are also younger and they are hungrier than the Lakers (except for Kobe Bryant).

I predicted that the Thunder might be rusty early in the game but by halftime that would not be a factor--and it did not even take that long for the Thunder to take over the game.

Each game in a series is a distinct, unique entity so it is usually hazardous to read too much into one blowout--but based on the matchup advantages that OKC enjoys and that I described in my preview I think that it would be a major accomplishment for the Lakers to win one game in this series. I am not predicting a sweep but I think that it will take a big game from Kobe offensively plus supreme effort/execution defensively across the board for the Lakers to win a game against the Thunder.

It is important to remember that the first two regular season games were not close and that the Lakers only managed to win the third game at home in double OT after Peace literally knocked out Harden.

Westbrook is the best pg in the league and one of the league's top five players. Many people do not realize this but perhaps a big performance against the overrated Lakers will give Westbrook some of the attention he has deserved all season long. I put him on my All-NBA First Team but I wonder if the media voters will even put him on the Third Team. Playing alongside Durant, Westbrook is often overlooked much the way that Pippen was when he played alongside Jordan.

 
At Wednesday, May 16, 2012 2:26:00 AM, Blogger jackson888 said...

david,
we had the same all nba first team if i am not mistaken. i agree that westbrook is the best pg in the game right now. he shoots the 3 at a respectable percentage right now, has a reliable midrange game (1 or 2 dribble pullup jumper), plays the pick and roll very well (points per pick and roll among the highest) and has a very nice post game (watch game 1 versus lakers). and his defense is not shabby either. man to man defense is excellent and he shoots the gaps just as well as anybody. and i am genuinely surprised with how he has learned through his mistakes from the last postseason. very athletic. and now has learned to play the game during crunch time. defers when necessary. takes over when opportunity presents itself. a lot has to do with his skill level improving, and he now finishes strong around the rim more often, probably because now he has a reliable mid range game and opponents have to play him for it. great call david.

jax

 
At Wednesday, May 16, 2012 2:17:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

"Westbrook is often overlooked..." And when not overlooked somewhat reviled for messing up Durant's story line.

 
At Thursday, May 17, 2012 2:13:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Not sure whether the Lakers' 2-0 hole has more to do with their own ineptitude or Oklahoma City's ability.

Probably a little of both but I'm leaning towards the former. They need to establish more consistency and get rid of the cancer that Bynum has become.

In any case the series is over, Oklahoma City finished them off with 2-game sweep and the Lakers probably won't show up for the next couple of games. Maybe next year?

David, please feel free to suggest how the Lakers can become elite again. Other than trading for Howard, I don't see a way back (besides unloading Kobe, tanking, and striking jackpot in the lottery).

 
At Thursday, May 17, 2012 3:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Why is it necessary to make excuses for OKC's 2-0 lead? The Thunder have been better than the Lakers all year long, they easily won the first two head to head meetings in the regular season and the Lakers only won game three after Peace knocked out Harden. Mike Brown came up with a brilliant defensive game plan that the Lakers almost flawlessly executed in game two of this series and the Lakers still lost. All of the evidence suggests that OKC is the vastly superior team. If the Lakers had won game two it would have extended the series but not changed the result because the Lakers have shown that they don't have the mental fortitude to consistently play at a high level in tough situations (i.e. on the road and/or against top notch teams). The Lakers' road record and their head to head record against top teams tells you all that you need to know about them.

Bynum is the Lakers' second best player now, so they can't just "get rid of him." If it were possible to trade him for Howard (including Gasol in the deal if necessary) then the Lakers should have done that but only the two teams involved know if that deal was ever actually on the table (which does not stop various media members from speculating about it).

"Unloading" Kobe Bryant is not possible--no one is going to trade for a player of his age who has a contract as big as his and, in any case, Bryant has a no-trade clause--nor would it help the Lakers because they could not possibly get equal value back (unless you think that the Lakers could acquire James or Durant in such a hypothetical deal). I have said for more than a year that the Lakers should acquire Dwight Howard, pair him with Bryant for the rest of Bryant's career and then build around Howard after Bryant retires. "Tanking" is stupid, inappropriate and ineffective.

 
At Thursday, May 17, 2012 10:38:00 PM, Anonymous LakerFan in Jamaica said...

As a Laker fan it kills me to see the Lakers struggle so much against OKC, but I agree with you, David, OKC is a MUCH better team. There is no way, even if we had won Game 2, that we would win the entire series.

In the past, you've suggested that the Lakers would stop being true contenders when Kobe Bryant could no longer carry a team on his back night in and night out. And I always stubbornly resisted that notion. I had hoped the Gasol/Bynum tandem would offset any concerns over Kobe's age/mileage/play etc. I've come to realize that I was 100% wrong, and you were 100% right.

Add in a terribly weak bench, and it's a minor miracle the Lakers were even the 3rd seed in the West. The talent "gap" between the Spurs and OKC vs the Lakers is more like a chasm!

I will be rooting for the Lakers no matter what, but it's very obvious that this team, as constructed, cannot win another championship.

 
At Tuesday, May 22, 2012 11:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

9WO:

Blake shot 4-13 from three point range in the five game loss to the Thunder, so his shooting definitely "regressed to the mean" as I expected.

 

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