Lakers-Thunder Preview: Awaken, Ghosts Of Staples Center

thunder02

For a team that supposedly matches up well with the Lakers - indeed, the one Western Conference opponent that by widespread opinion the Lakers should want to avoid in the playoffs - the Oklahoma City Thunder haven't actually beaten the champs in a while. You have to look back almost a full year, to April 24, 2010, to find the last meeting between the teams that ended with the Thunder ahead on the scoreboard. Four times since then have the Lakers and Thunder clashed, and four times the Lakers have been the ones left standing. At Staples Center, the results have been starkly one-sided: the Thunder have lost 11 straight to the purple and gold in Los Angeles. Granted, there've been a lot of close OKC losses in this series - and believe me, I get why the Thunder are equipped to cause problems for the champs - but if the Lakers don't want to face OKC in the playoffs, the converse of that statement is equally true.

For the last six weeks or so, a postseason battle between these teams seemed unlikely. With the Lakers apparently headed for the second seed in the West and the Thunder chugging along in fourth, the probable outcome was that they'd land on opposite sides of the conference playoff bracket. Now, who knows. The Lakers' losing streak, combined with a 17-4 run on the part of OKC, has jumbled the conference race. The Lakers, Mavs and Thunder could finish two-three-four in any order. If the Mavs lose at home today to the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers can clinch the second seed with a victory over the Thunder. But if both the Mavs and Thunder win, the last few days of the regular season will be a chaotic free-for-all to see who finishes where.

The Lakers have notched win after win against OKC by clamping down on the Thunder's offensive attack. The formula starts with Ron Artest. Ron has demonstrated an ability to get physical with Kevin Durant without sending the superstar to the free-throw line. Durant will get his points, of course, but when Ron's beating him up, KD tends to shoot poorly, burn through a lot of empty possessions and look like a kid who badly needs either to hit the weight room or commence an aggressive HGH cycle.

Controlling Russell Westbrook has been a dicier proposition. Westbrook is the embodiment of the point-guard traits that give the Laker defense fits. He's strong, fast off the dribble and fearless crashing into the lane, and he has the lift and upper-body strength to overpower every Laker not named Andrew Bynum at the rim. He frequently attacks the Lakers off a high pick-and-roll, which lays bare the terrible hedging skills of the Laker bigs. When the situation gets truly dire, Phil Jackson will switch Kobe Bryant onto him, but otherwise defending Westbrook requires tight rotations and lots of help in the paint.

Historically the Lakers have given disproportionate attention to Westbrook while challenging the Thunder role players to make open outside looks. And historically, the Thunder role players have failed horrendously at that. Particularly in games at Staples Center, guys like James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha and Jeff Green have been left deliberately unchecked on the perimeter, only to hoist brick after brick. Sadly, we don't have Jeff Green to kick around anymore, at least not until the Lakers face the Celtics again.

Instead, we get to spend Sunday evening with your best friend and mine, Kendrick Perkins. Big Perk, as you know, joined the Thunder at the trade deadline when the Celtics decided to... well, I'm not sure what the Celtics were thinking. But Perk's in OKC now, and to remind ourselves what a delightful cad he is, let's rewind to his comments in mid-March, when he called the Lakers "yesterday's news."

I don't like Pau Gasol or Phil Jackson. Phil is arrogant. Pau is soft. Kobe tries to bring out his toughness, but he's still soft.

Got it. Thanks, Perk. The Lakers need something to snap them out of their late-season coma, and a gratuitous provocation like this should do just fine. If Bynum feels like breaking Perk over his knee today, I wouldn't object.

But say this for Kendrick: he's done what he was brought in to do, which was shore up the Thunder defense. After missing nine games after the trade because of his injured MCL, his presence in the lineup has helped OKC recover the defensive form that made them such a menace last year. Here are the Thunder's offensive and defensive efficiencies for the season and since Perk joined the rotation.        

 

Offensive Efficiency

Defensive Efficiency

  Net  

Season to date.............

111.0

107.0

+4.0

With Perk starting.........

109.1

101.1

+8.0

Yep, that's what a successful trade looks like. The Thunder have taken a slight step back offensively, but their D has been fantastic. Even if Perk doesn't solve the problems OKC has had scoring against the Lakers, he enhances the likelihood that the Thunder can come up with a shutdown performance of their own. Their big man rotation - comprising Perk, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed - is as good defensively as any the Lakers will face in the playoffs.

Attempting to predict how the Lakers will play tonight is a pointless exercise. A week ago, they hit the snooze button before their matchup with the Nuggets, and they haven't woken up since. If they lose tonight, it'll be their first five-game losing streak since March of 2007 (when they dropped seven straight). Back then, Smush Parker, Luke Walton and Kwame Brown were all in the starting lineup.

You'd think at some point, professional pride would kick in, and you'd start competing just to shut everyone up. Or maybe with playoff seeding in real jeopardy now, a spark of urgency will set them alight. Perhaps they'll just hammer the snooze button a few more times and head into the playoffs on a seven-game losing streak. That wouldn't be my choice, but these Lakers go about things their own way. We're all just helpless bystanders.        

 

                  Thunder                

                   Lakers                 

 


League Rank


League Rank

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

53-26

7

55-24

3t

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

+3.7

8

+6.3

3

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

92.6

13

90.6

21

Offensive Efficiency...............

111.0

7

111.0

6

Turnover Rate.....................

13.0%

11

12.4%

3

FTA/FGA............................

0.36

3

0.29

16

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

82.2

1

77.5

7

3PT FGA/FGA.....................

0.21

19

0.22

16

3PT%.................................

34.6

19

35.2

17

Effective FG%.....................

49.8

14

50.1

12

True Shooting%...................

55.9

8

54.7

11

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

27.4%

11

29.6%

3

Defensive Efficiency...............

107.0

14

104.0

6

Turnover Rate.....................

13.0%

19

12.9%

21

FTA/FGA............................

0.30

16

0.23

1

3PT FGA/FGA.....................

0.20

3

0.24

24

3PT%.................................

36.2

18

33.3

3

Effective FG%.....................

49.4

11

47.7

5

True Shooting%...................

53.5

12

51.4

2

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

73.6%

17

72.2%

22

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. Numbers are courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData. Read more about the Thunder at our sister site Welcome to Loud City.

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