Lakers-Thunder Preview: Rage

Last night the Lakers beat the Mavericks on the road in a signature win. It was a win against a good playoff caliber opponent, but it wasn’t the kind of win that puts a league (and front office) on notice. No, those kinds of games are not signature games, they are statement games. Tonight the Lakers get the opportunity to make a statement to the rest of the league, the Lakers brass, and to all the other critics out there who claim the Lakers' demise is eminent.

Perhaps the team would be best served to have their elder(ly) leader, Derek Fisher, who came through last night when the Lakers needed him most, to read the first stanza of the famous poem by Dylan Thomas:

"Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rage at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

The end of an era is drawing near. The perennial contender, based on the foundation of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, bolstered by the potential of young Andrew Bynum, fortified by the defense of Metta World Peace, and held together under the leadership of Derek Fisher, may be playing its final road game together. On March 1st, many of the league’s players will become available to trade and Lakers’ management might decide to turn the lights off on this era and look to begin anew. A win tonight would make very a clear statement, "We are not done!"

Tonight the purple and gold go up against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team tied for the best record in the league and considered by many to be the only true contender in the Western Conference. They too possess a top heavy trio of talent in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. These three players combined to score over 68 points per game or roughly 66.2% of their team’s points, a slightly larger share than the Lakers big trio in Bryant, Gasol, and Bynum.

While the scoring may come from three perimeter players, the Thunder’s defense comes primarily from its front line. The Thunder have Serge Ibaka, the league leader in blocked shots, who recently had the rare triple double in points, rebounds, and blocks. Former Celtic, Kendrick Perkins, mans the frontline along side him. The slimmed down but still scowling Perkins continues to be a physical one-on-one defender, sure to make things difficult for Bynum and Gasol.

The Thunder might as well be the Lakers literary foil. They are a team built around youth and athleticism. They push the tempo constantly and are very mobile on the front line, especially so when Durant slides to power forward with Ibaka anchoring the middle. Side effects of their incessant focus on running is that they are turnover prone (worst in the league) but get to the line with great regularity (best in the league). The Lakers are the worst team at forcing turnovers but are the second best at keeping the opponent off the line, and they prefer a much slower pace, especially when both Bynum and Gasol are on the floor. Whichever team can force its tempo and style on the other will likely win the game.

There are many intriguing match-ups on the floor tonight. World Peace will defend Durant, as he has shown an ability to force Durant into difficult nights shooting the ball. The Thunder like to play Durant at the power forward position occasionally and, while Gasol would struggle to defend him, he likely can’t defend Gasol. Do the Thunder even try this match-up? The Lakers have often had a cross-match on defense with Kobe guarding the more athletic Westbrook. Will that continue or will the more mobile (relative to Fisher) Steve Blake or Andrew Goudelock make an attempt to defend Westbrook? Kobe is usually defended by the underrated Thabo Sefolosha, but a foot injury has him sidelined. Instead, Kobe will see undersized James Harden and Daequan Cook all night, match-ups he can clearly exploit. Look for coaches Mike Brown and Scott Brooks to play their own game of chess with the rotations and match-ups as these opposite teams try to force their will and tempo on the other.

Tonight is a huge game for the Lakers. A victory would mean they will have won 6 out of their last 7 games, beating the defending champs and this season’s favorite to come out of the Western Conference on the road on back-to-back nights. That would be a loud message to the dysfunctional front office that they may want to give this team’s core a little more time. A little time may be all this team needs as they play only one team (Miami) above .500 in their next 10 games before the trade deadline passes. Winning eight or nine out those ten games would give management reason to keep this team’s core as is.

However, a loss tonight might send the message that, while these Lakers are good, they aren’t quite contenders. In Lakersland, we only hang championships. It is title or bust and if the title isn’t achievable then the roster must change. It is up to the players tonight to rage. Rage against the front office. Rage against the critics and doubters who say this team is done. Rage against all the personal labels of being "too soft", "too old", or "too crazy". Rage for the continuance of era. For if they do not, the end of the light may be upon us.

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