Lakers-Thunder Series Preview

artestdurant02

During the Lakers' first-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, you're going to hear a lot about "controlling the pace." The idea goes like this: the Thunder have a bunch of springy young athletes, so they'll want to run frenetically up and down the floor in a fast-paced game. The Lakers, on the other hand, are big and kind of old and employ Derek Fisher, so they'll prefer a deliberate half-court contest. Intuitively I get why people would reach for this storyline, as it lines up with widely held perceptions of the various players involved in this series.

One problem: there's no basis in fact for any of it. The Thunder don't play a materially faster game than do the Lakers, and they're not any better than the Lakers when the pace does pick up. On the flip side, they're no worse than the Lakers when it comes to half-court grinding. This is but one of the fascinating things to be learned by getting all numbersy on this series. Yay, information!

Here's where I'm coming from on the question of pace. In average possessions per 48 minutes, the Lakers and Thunder have been almost identical this season. There are 92.8 possessions in an average Laker game, which ranks 14th in the NBA, and 93.1 in a typical Thunder game, which ranks 13th. So both teams generally play at a middle-of-the-road tempo, neither Golden State Warriors fast nor Portland Trail Blazers pokey. That doesn't, admittedly, tell us whether either team has a competitive advantage in playing one style or another.

To tackle that question, I examined how the two teams fared in different types of games this year. Each game on the two teams' regular-season schedules I dropped into one of four buckets, depending on how many possessions were involved. "Slow games" I defined as those with 91 possessions or fewer. "Moderately slow" games are those with 92 to 94 possessions. "Moderately fast" are those with 95 to 98 possessions, and "fast games" are those that had 99 or more possessions. I used these cutoffs because for both the Lakers and the Thunder, it roughly divides the schedule into quadrants. They both played about a quarter of their games in each of the four categories.

Here's what their respective won-loss records looked like, broken down in this fashion.

Game Type

Lakers

Thunder

Slow

11-10 (0.524)

10-9 (0.526)

Moderately Slow

16-5 (0.762)

12-8 (0.600)

Moderately Fast

13-7 (0.650)

16-6 (0.727)

Fast

17-3 (0.850)

12-9 (0.571)

Your mind: it is blown, yes? Both teams have been just so-so in slow games, but it's the Lakers who have excelled in fast-paced battles. The Thunder have actually been at their strongest when the tempo is at neither extreme. Does that mean I think the Lakers should adopt a Seven Seconds or Less ethos for this series? Nope. But it does mean there's basically no correlation between how fast these teams play and how well they play, and certainly none that suggests the Lakers will need to slow the game down. Just run your system, and let the possession count fall where it may.

The head-to-head results from the regular season bear out this advice. Of the four games the Lakers played against the Thunder this season, it was in the slowest of the four, an 88-possession affair in March, that they fared the worst. In two mid-tempo games between the teams, the Lakers won narrowly in early November and comfortably later that month. The December game in the series clocked in at a crisp 100 possessions, again a narrow Laker win. I think we've established that we can disregard Mark Jackson when he tells us that the Lakers need to take the air out of the ball to avoid a track meet.

What else does the regular-season series between the Lake Show and OKC tell us? Funny you should ask, as I happen to have the four-game composite stats right in front of me. And they are now right in front of you.

 

Poss./48

TO%

FTA/
FGA

FT%

3FGA/FGA

2PT%

3PT%

EFG

TS%

OReb Rate

DReb Rate

PPP

OKC

93.8

18

0.25

82

0.23

47

22

46

50

31

72

0.99

LA

94.5

18

0.34

77

0.18

47

28

46

52

28

69

1.00

What I find striking is how closely the two teams played each other - a net difference of only six points across 385 or so possessions - and what a defensive struggle it was. Each team held the other well below average in offensive efficiency. There were a whole lot of turnovers and over 100 combined missed three-point attempts. We should avoid overinterpreting data generated four-to-six months ago, but I do expect the playoff series to continue with this defensive theme.

When the Thunder Have the Ball

Here's how the Thunder's offense matches up with the Laker D along the most important metrics. League rank is indicated in parentheses.

 

TO%

FTA/
FGA

FT%

3FGA/FGA

2PT%

3PT%

EFG

TS%

Reb Rate

PPP

OKC Off.

13.9 (24)

0.33 (6)

80.5 (2)

0.19 (23)

49.0 (18)

34.0 (25)

49.4 (18)

54.7 (12)

28.6 (3)

1.08 (12)

LA Def.

13.2 (18)

0.26 (1)

n/a

0.23 (21)

48.1 (12)

32.8 (1)

48.4 (6)

52.2 (2)

74.4 (9)

1.04 (4)

Will the Thunder be able to get the ball in the hoop? They're not good at shooting - even worse than the Lakers, as crazy as that sounds. After Kevin Durant, they route a lot of possessions through shooters of middling or worse efficiency in Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green. They are, like the Lakers, especially terrible at making threes. The more threes that Westbrook attempts, the better, both because he makes few of them and it means he's not plowing his way to the rim. Westbrook, for all his considerable appeal, is also the lead offender in this team's crappy turnover rate.

The Thunder make up for these deficiencies, in part, by getting to the free-throw line and making their throws. Durant draws fouls as well as anyone in the league, and Westbrook too draws FTAs at an above-average rate. Westbrook shoots 78% from the line, Durant 90%. In the regular-season series, the Lakers generally succeeded in keeping OKC off the line, and indeed, their ability to defend without fouling has been the most underdiscussed strength of the Laker D all season long. If Durant in particular is held to 5-7 free throw attempts per game, it'll be a sign that Ron Artest is holding his own in that battle.

Controlling the glass when the Thunder have the ball will be another key theater of combat. Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka are strong offensive rebounders, and Westbrook might be the best offensive-rebounding guard in the NBA. Lamar Odom will need to focus his energies on collecting caroms. The returns of Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant are crucial here as well. Both are among the Lakers' better defensive rebounders.

When the Lakers Have the Ball

Here's how the Laker offense lines up against the Thunder D in these same categories. Again, parentheses indicate league ranking.

 

TO%

FTA/
FGA

FT%

3FGA/FGA

2PT%

3PT%

EFG

TS%

Reb Rate

PPP

LA Off.

12.4 (5)

0.29 (19)

76.5 (12)

0.23 (13)

49.2 (14)

34.1 (24)

49.6 (17)

53.8 (17)

27.6 (8)

1.09 (11)

OKC D.

14.0 (7)

0.30 (17)

n/a

0.21 (8)

47.6 (7)

34.0 (3)

48.3 (4)

52.8 (8)

73.6 (17)

1.05 (9)

If there's one stat that was central to the Lakers' offensive performance against the Thunder during the regular season, it was turnover rate. In the one game the Lakers won comfortably, they coughed the rock up on only 9% of their possessions. In the other three games, their turnover rates ranged from 17% up to an obscene 26%. Kobe personally averaged seven turnovers in these three games. In the Lakers' easy win on November 22nd, he turned the ball over not even once.

Kobe's injured finger has been a clear cause of his diminished handle this season. Has the time off mitigated the problem? Can he control the rock when Thabo Sefolosha and Westbrook try to strip him on his drives? This is the first thing to watch when the Lakers enter their offensive sets.

The second is whether the Lakers will have any outside shooting whatsoever. They are, as our readers well know, inept when it comes to shooting threes. Making matters worse, the Thunder one of the NBA's best at defending the arc. In the regular-season series between the teams, the Lakers missed more than 70% of their three-point attempts. Will Kobe's fresh legs give him new lift and accuracy on his shot? Will the Lakers enjoy a repeat of the 2009 playoffs, when guys like Shannon Brown and Lamar shot threes well above their regular-season rates?

Most likely, the Lakers' supply chain for points will need to run through the paint. Pau Gasol, this is your moment. OKC has some quality inside defenders in Collison and Ibaka, but those guys aren't Dikembe Mutombo (despite his and Ibaka's shared Congolese heritage). Gasol was at the height of his powers at the end of the regular season and should be offensive option number one. Please take note of this, Kobe and Shannon. Do not forget about Pau. If Bynum can chip in some inside scoring, all the better.

For all the Thunder's defensive strengths, you can do work against them on the offensive boards. I'd love to see some classic Bynum-Gasol volleyball action at the rim. For the most part, they should be able to play over the heads of the OKC frontline. Nenad Krstic is the Thunder's only true seven-footer, and he's a bad defensive rebounder by big-man standards.

Final Thoughts

This will be the Lakers' most difficult first-round series of the Gasol era. In terms of the teams' underlying season performance, this isn't a typical 1-8 series. The Lakers look more like a classic two seed, the Thunder a seven or even six. I expect to see mostly close, low-scoring games. These are defensively minded squads that can go long stretches struggling to put the ball through the net. 93 to 91 could be a typical game score.

In his playoff preview yesterday (behind the Insider pay wall), ESPN's John Hollinger presented a breathtaking statistic: in the first round of the NBA playoffs, when the team with home-court advantage won the regular-season series, that team has proceeded to win the playoff series 41 straight times. That's a crazy streak, one not to be disregarded lightly in the formation of predictions. Despite the Thunder's many virtues and the Lakers' numerous weaknesses right now, both injury-related and otherwise, it would be truly shocking if OKC joined the 2007 Warriors, the 1999 Knicks and the 1994 Nuggets as eight-seeds to reach the second round.

Follow Dex on Twitter here.

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