Lakers-Thunder Preview: Sunday Morning Coming Down

LOS ANGELES CA - JANUARY 17: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers makes a pass around Serge Ibaka #9,Thabo Sefolosha #2 and Jeff Green #22 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Staples Center on January 17 2011 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and or using this photograph User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Don't stay out too late tonight, kids. Set your alarms, cancel those Sunday brunch plans and get your 40 winks. Tomorrow the bleary-eyed Lakers are slated for a rare morning tip, in Oklahoma City at 11:30 Los Angeles time. It'll be their first visit to OKC since last April, when Pau Gasol's last second put-back ended the champs' first-round series with the Thunder. Thanks to Sam Presti's creative bartering at this week's trade deadline, the Thunder squad we'll see tomorrow will look a little different than what you might recall from last year's playoffs.

In a pair of deals, Presti sent packing Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, D.J. White and Morris Peterson and in return bagged Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed and Nate Robinson. Perkins won't play Sunday. The team announced on Saturday that he's out two to three weeks with an MCL sprain and that Nick Collison will start at center. Into the starting power-forward pozishe once occupied by Jeff Green slides the excellent (and excellently named) Serge Ibaka. Both Mohammed and Robinson are expected to have their Thunder debuts against the Lake Show. It's not totally clear yet how Nate will fit into Scotty Brooks's rotation, as OKC already has a well-regarded pair of reserve guards in Eric Maynor and James Harden.

Tomorrow's game is of no small importance. The Lakers right now are third in the Western Conference standings and the Thunder fourth, 3½ games behind. The reward for finishing third this year is that you won't have to face the Spurs in the second round. The Lakers are 1-0 this season against OKC, having defeated them at Staples Center back on January 17, and after Sunday there's just one more regular-season contest left between the teams. So if the champs take care of business tomorrow, they'll own not only a 4½-game lead over OKC but the head-to-head tiebreaker as well, making it all but impossible for them to end up on the Spurs' side of the bracket.

That game on January 17 was in some ways typical of a Lakers-Thunder tilt. Russell Westbrook was a destructive force, scoring 32 points and collecting 12 assists. Kevin Durant scored 24 but did so inefficiently owing to physical D from Ron Artest. And though Ibaka was solid defensively and on the boards, no one else from the Thunder's second-tier players played well. Harden, Green and Thabo Sefolosha combined to miss 11 of their 12 three-point attempts. Sefolosha couldn't slow down Kobe Bryant. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum pounded OKC in the paint en route to 47 combined points. That's the basic formula the Lakers have used to handle OKC: turn Artest loose on Durant, challenge the role players to make shots, and on offense feed the bigs when Kobe isn't working over Thabo. Manage those things and Westbrook's serial demolitions of Derek Fisher can be survived.


Implementing that formula mightn't be so easy tomorrow. For one thing, the OKC supporting players tend to fare much better in their home gym than they do at Staples. Including the playoffs, the Lakers were just 2-3 at Oklahoma City Arena last season. One of those losses was by 16 points, another by 21.

Also, Nazr Mohammed will be in the house. Stop that snickering: against the Lake Show (and kind of in general) this guy is a baller. Last February he lit up the champs with 23 points and 17 boards in a Bobcats loss at Staples. And just two weeks ago, he scored 16 on 7-of-11 shooting as the Cats tore the Lakers a new one in Charlotte. Nazr gives OKC more scoring pop on the inside than they got from Krstic, and he's not a shabby defender either. Collison is coming off a nightmarish Friday performance in which he got embarrassed by Dwight Howard - our sister site Welcome to Loud City has more on the Thunder's defensive problems in that game - and the only other usable five is rook Cole Aldrich (recently back from the D League), so look for Brooks to find as many minutes as he reasonably can for Mohammed.

And I do think the early start time could be trouble for the Lakers. They've had a couple earlier jumps this season, but those were against the Raptors and Nets, and those came after the champs had already been on the road several days, so that they'd already adjusted to the time difference. Flying east and then having to go to work early the next morning is, as any business traveler will tell you, not fun. In the first quarter Sunday, look to see whether there's an energy gap between the teams. I expect there to be one, and I'll consider it a good sign if the Lakers are tied or just a little behind after the first period.


Vegas has the Thunder listed as a one-point favorites, even though they've lost two of three since the All-Star break. It's only the fourth time this season the purp and yellow have been underdogs. (The other three, if you're wondering, were the road games in Boston, San Antonio and Orlando.) I'm not going to offer a prediction. For all the reasons I go into above, this feels like a loss, but three really stellar performances since the All-Star break almost have me believing this team is finding a new gear. Whether such a belief is justified will more apparent this time tomorrow.

 

                   Lakers                 

                 Thunder                 

 


League Rank


League Rank

Record...................................

41-19

6

36-21

7

Net Points Per Game..............

+6.3

4

+2.1

10

Pace.......................................

91.2

20

93.0

12

Offensive Rating.....................

111.9

2

110.5

6

Turnover Rate (Off.).............

12.7%

4

12.8%

6

FTA/FGA (Off.)....................

0.30

17

0.38

2

Free-Throw %......................

76.8

13

73.7

29

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)............

0.22

15

0.20

19

3PT% (Off.).........................

36.2

12

33.8

24

Effective FG% (Off.)............

50.9

10

49.3

17

True Shooting% (Off.)...........

55.1

10

55.8

8

Off Rebounding Rate............

29.6%

4

26.9%

12

Defensive Rating.....................

105.1

10

108.3

16

Turnover Rate (Def.).............

12.8%

22

13.0%

18

FTA/FGA (Def.)...................

0.24

1

0.30

13

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)............

0.24

23

0.20

3

3PT% (Def.)........................

33.9

7

36.9

23

Effective FG% (Def.)............

48.2

8

50.2

17

True Shooting% (Def.)..........

52.0

5

54.1

14

Def Rebounding Rate...........

72.7%

20

74.0%

15

All numbers courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData. Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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