After getting off to a rough start with our usual traditions, we're back up and running on schedule for Round 2!
Well folks, I hope you are ready for uncharted territory. Today, for the first time in Silver Screen and Roll history, the Los Angeles Lakers will begin a playoff series in which they are ... *shock* underdogs. In fact, it will be the first time the Lakers are expected to lose a playoff series since 2007, when their first round exit to the Phoenix Suns was extremely predictable. Since then, they have been favored to win every single series they have played in, including the lost 2008 NBA Finals (they probably shouldn't have been favored, but the Lakers looked great in the 2008 postseason and Boston did not) and last year's shameful sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks.
We've only been around since 2009, a run that has seen two championships and one epic flame-out. In that time, I believe only one person has ever had the temerity to pick against the home team in this space, when Dexter Fishmore predicted doom in the 2009 NBA Finals. He was wrong then, and nobody saw last year's exit coming, but the bottom line is that confidence has been extremely high around these parts the past few seasons, and we've had good reason for that confidence. How will our crack team respond to the circumstances of not having the favorite in the series? Find out after the jump.
After a first round series that went far longer than expected, optimism is understandably in short supply against what looks like a juggernaut of an opponent in Oklahoma City. The Thunder are not merely a young, deep team as Denver was. They are a young, deep team with a top three that rivals the Lakers' own. Kevin Durant is unarguably a top five player in the league, Russell Westbrook is a full-fledged superstar, and James Harden is the best two guard on the planet not named Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, or Manu Ginobili. The other starters, meanwhile, can all slow down the primary thrust of the Lakers' offense -- Thabo Sefolosha is an All-Defense athletic wing who has always given Kobe problems; Kendrick Perkins, my thoughts on how overrated he is notwithstanding, is at very least a solid post defender to make Bynum work; and Serge Ibaka is a shot blocking dynamo that can frustrate Pau Gasol and any other Laker penetrating into the lane for that matter. You have to imagine that after watching an entire series of Denver flooding the lane with impunity, OKC will do so as well, and even the return of Metta World Peace doesn't instill a great deal of confidence in the Lakers' ability to punish OKC for trying to take the Lakers' post players out of the game. On the other end, Durant is simply an awe-inspiring offensive force and Westbrook has finally channeled that ridiculous athleticism into a much more controlled game. As the Lakers let the Nuggets run amok for nearly the entire series on offense, one naturally wonders what on earth the Lakers are going to do when faced with some bona fide superstars directing a similarly athletic and speedy attack.
It should be noted, however, that while the talent gap is much bigger between OKC and Denver, there are structural differences in terms of how the teams are constructed that do work in the Lakers' favor. There is no Al Harrington to drag the Lakers' interior defenders out to the three-point line, or much scoring at all from OKC's frontline for that matter. Perkins is an incredibly limited and turnover prone offensive player, Ibaka is a decent shooter from midrange and finisher at the rim but not much more, and the rest of the Thunder interior players don't project to be any sort of offensive threat. This allows much greater freedom of movement from Bynum, Gasol and Hill on defense and they'll need all of that to deter the vanguard of the Thunder offense. Last game, Kobe took the responsibility of checking Westbrook and showed that when focused, he still can summon some All-World level ability in that regard. Stopping Westbrook on the pick-and-roll will be item one for the Lakers' defense and after an entire series of lazy hedges and half-assed rotations, the Lakers will have to summon a lot more effort to deter Westbrook as he turns the corner. As for Durant, MWP will naturally spend the entire series on him, as Brown will match their minutes as much as humanely possible, and MWP will need to bother Durant by being physical and pushing him off his spots. Of course, the problem is that there is no third defensive stopper in this equation to stop Harden -- Chris Paul, where art thou? -- and the prospect of Ramon Sessions or Steve Blake having to deal with either Westbrook or Harden for significant stretches has to be disheartening.
But of course, all these are problems that the Lakers will face even in ideal circumstances if they get their heads out of their rears and put forth the play one expects of a legitimate championship contender. The Thunder are a team that can take the Lakers' best punch and keep on rolling regardless. Anything less will get the Lakers blown out of the building. To pull this out, pretty much everything needs to click for the Lakers: Bynum has to obliterate the Thunder interior defense and be the defensive terror he can be, Gasol has to prove that his ability to shake off his playoff demons in Game 7 wasn't a fluke, Kobe has to play efficiently on offense while slowing down Westbrook on defense, MWP has to get into Durant's head or do something to deter his ridiculous scoring ability, and perhaps most of all, the motley collection of Laker role players has to produce, whether it is shooting (Blake, Sessions, MWP, Barnes), rebounding (Barnes, Hill), or whatnot. That's an awful lot of things that have to go right. For the first time in a long while, the Lakers' best simply might not be enough against the full might of an opposing team and they haven't proven that they can summon the requisite effort for an entire series to make it a true contest in their favor.
Prediction: Thunder in 6
As I mentioned in my preview, if the Lakers are going to even have a chance in this series they will need Gasol and Bynum to play like they did in game seven of the Denver series, one of their four role players to have a big night (Blake, Barnes, Hill or MWP) AND Kobe to have a classic Kobe performance in every game. The odds of those things happening even once are slim and Oklahoma City can still beat the Lakers at their peak, anyways. I originally thought this would be a sweep but I do believe Kobe will have one monster performance that could coincide with an off night from Durant and lead to a Laker victory. The better team will prevail in the end though, and that's the Thunder.
Prediction: Thunder in 5
More than any series maybe in the Kobe/Pau era, this one is the most difficult to forecast. Not because of the matchup; the 2010 Finals and 2008 Western Conference Finals against the Spurs were much tougher to predict before Game 1. I just don't know what we're going to see from the Lakers OR the Thunder. On the Lakers side, are we going to see that gutty, tough LA team that allowed only 39% shooting and 29% from long that we saw in Game 7? Or are we going to see the Game 6 disaster where the Lakers couldn't knock down a long jumper to save their lives and allowed nearly 60 points in the paint? Or something in between? Are we going to see the same MWP that we saw last night, or a guy that has played one game in three weeks without the adrenaline rush of an elimination game? Will James Harden just a deadly perimeter threat, or a bearded juggernaut attacking the rim with Mamba-like ferocity in the Mavs close-out game?
With so many questions going forward, let's concentrate on what we do know. With MWP in the fold, the Lakers are a extremely tough team in the paint. Bynum, Gasol, Kobe and Pau are too much for even OKC's vaunted front line to handle. However, the Thunder are one of the best jump-shooting teams in the League and matched up against the porous Lakers perimeter D, I think that this attack might even be more potent that Bynum and Gasol, who when double-teamed have nowhere to go. Both teams are capable of playing extremely tough and gritty, and perhaps most importantly, know how to win a hostile road game. The only way LA can win this series is if they completely control the pace and can somehow wrangle two of the three Thunder big weapons. However, to me, it just feels like Oklahoma's time. They're young, hungry, and unlike the Lakers, never take a posession off. I'm calling Thunder in 7, but for that reason, wouldn't be surprised if the Lakers pulled out a upset road Game 7 W. Much like I did in picking OKC over my Lakers, I think it's time for the Thunder to grow up and take the next step. Excuse, I'm going to go cry in a dark corner now.
Prediction: Thunder in 7
The Thunder pose a very difficult match-up for the Lakers. The Thunder have three elite perimeter players in Durant, Westbrook, and Hardin. The Lakers meanwhile only have two elite perimeter defenders in Bryant and Wold Peace. Unless the Lakers can find a way of cloning one of them in the next 24 hours, the Thunder will have a big mismatch that they can exploit. As Dallas learned, either of those three Thunder stars are capable of carrying a team to victory. Asking Blake or Sessions to defend Westbrook or Harden doesn't sound like a winning strategy. I think the Lakers have two options: ask Bynum to replicate his 10 block performance in at least 4 of the next 7 games, or consider going with a no point guard line-up featuring Bryant, World Peace, and Barnes when the Thunder play all three stars together. The problem with this strategy is that the Lakers will need World Peace and Barnes to make threes or the offense may struggle and give away any hard earned gains from the defensive end.
Inside the Lakers have the advantage as usual but the front-line of Perkins and Ibaka is much better than McGee and Faried. The one wild card is that Bynum doesn't particularly like Perkins so perhaps the Lakers future cornerstone will actually give a damn for most of the series. When Bynum is focused and gives effort he is the best center in the league and the Lakers become very difficult to beat, even by a team as talented as the Thunder. Unfortunately, he tends to pout and act like a child when he doesn't get the ball and then mentally checks out on defense.
The other big factor for me in this series is Kobe Bryant's efficiency. He has struggled mightily against OKC, particularly Thabo Sefolosha. In the last 8 games that Bryant and Sefolosha have squared off, Bryant has made only 65 of 171 field goal attempts (roughly 38%). The Lakers need Kobe to shoot at least 45% from the floor if they are going to have a chance in this series. Given Bryant's struggles in the past, Bynum's inconsistent play, and the Lakers lack of a third perimeter defender, I can't take LA to win the series no matter how bad I want to. My heart says the Lakers can win the series but my brain says no. I am going to listen to my brain and take OKC in 5 (Lakers win game 3). Here's to hoping I am wrong.
Prediction: Thunder in 5
This series is going to be tough. I suppose I'm too much of a homer to ever pick against my team, and I tend to have some stupid sense of blind faith that allows me to look for reasons why the Lakers will win a series, as opposed to how many games they'll be taken out in. With that said, it's going to take the Lakers 100% focus, intensity and interest to win this series against the Thunder. Those boys are good over there in OKC and so far, they look ready for prime time.
As foolish as I may be for constantly holding out hope that these Lakers will become consistently good, I'm going to make a series of assumptions that will dictate the way this series plays out. I'm going to assume that Pau and Andrew will each look great for three games and that Ibaka and Perkins will defensively dominate three games. Metta World Peace's recent Ron Artest resurgence will completely stifle Kevin Durant in three games, and Durant will look like the best scorer in the world in three games. Kobe Bryant will defend Russell Westbrook well for three games, and Westbrook will nail everything inside of 18 feet and drop a jaw-dropping dunk for three games. Our bench will look like shit in three games, and make us proud in three. And finally, I'll assume that Kobe has three great offensive games, and three so-so to bad ones. You get my point, most of the major match-ups have the potential to play out evenly, but only if the Lakers play with the focus and energy the Thunder deserve for 48 minutes, for 7 games.
Assuming those things, the tipping point comes down three things. One of those match-ups will start to weigh more heavily in one team's side. If either of those tips in the Thunder's favor, the Lakers are cooked. If any of those tip in the Lakers favor, the Thunder might just be good enough to off-set it, unless Pau and Bynum dominate (what else?). Where the series will be won is with two guards who come off the bench, and that's where the Thunder have a major advantage.
The spotlight is going to be on James Harden. We're gonna get bludgeoned to death with the Elbow attention. All eyes will be on Metta World Peace and Harden's response to the Lakers tough tactics. Will Harden avenge himself with great play? Can he come through when all the basketball world will be watching? The Lakers have no one to check James Harden. Like Steve Blake, Harden doesn't start, and also like Steve Blake, Harden plays the crunch time minutes. If the game is close, how well the Lakers are able to play Harden is what will decide the series. When the Thunder trot out KD, Westbrook and Harden, the Lakers should feel comfortable with MWP and Kobe defending, but Harden has a major advantage over Steve Blake. Defensively, it appears that James gets under Kobe's skin more than we'd like to admit. On order for the Lakers to not let this series slip from them, they are going to have to off-set Harden's production. They won't be able to in full, but a serious leap of faith is required.
As it appeared to be the case throughout the season, the Lakers season could very well depend on the skinny white guy on the Lakers' bench who, as of late, has been doing a pretty spot on impersonation of Derek Fisher. Blake's going to get roasted on defense, he's going to turn the ball over making simple entry passes, and he'll probably suck pretty bad for most of the series, but when those big shots present themselves, will Steve Blake continue his Fish 2.0 impersonation? The open shots are going to be there. Kobe's going to demand attention, as will Pau and Bynum. If MWP plays how's he's been then he deserve his proper attention as well. Steve Blake will get the chances to knock down some open shots like he did in Game 7 against the Nuggets. If so, he just might decide the series. Assuming the Lakers care, or unless the Thunder are really that good that it doesn't matter.
Prediction: Lakers in 7
If there are reasons to pick the Lakers in this series, I can't come up with them. The balance of talent seems about even, but the Thunder are more rested, better coached and have home-court advantage. And unlike two of the Lakers' Big Three, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden don't routinely take nights off in the postseason. We've reached the edge of the cliff for the Lake Show, and as we know, when they go down they go down fast and ugly. This season, I suspect, will end just as the last one did.
Prediction: Thunder in 4
As I maintained at the beginning of the playoffs, there remains a blueprint in the Los Angeles Lakers' possession, and if they follow that blueprint, they are a very difficult team to beat. The blueprint involves an active Andrew Bynum on defense, a guy who protects the basket and erases his teammates mistakes. It involves an aggressive Pau Gasol, who does not allow other teams and his more dominant teammates to bully him out of his offensive game. It involves a Kobe Bryant who punishes teams for whatever they do, whether it involves double teams and teammates, or the opposite of that. And it involves guys at the small forward and point guard who just need to be threatening enough offensively to not be completely ignored. Even if one of the elements are missing, the Lakers can be a very formidable team.
But can we even expect that? It seems doubtful. We know Kobe Bryant will try, and will carry his weight, but does he have it in him to be masterful in every contest? I genuinely believe Pau Gasol will be able to build on his vital showing in game seven, but the marriage of his motivation with his success will not always be so pure. And the honest truth is that Andrew Bynum, Metta World Peace, and the point guard du jour are all complete wild cards for various reasons. There is no reason to expect all of those elements will be present every single night. There is far more reason to expect that some of those elements will be missing in certain games, or in a worst case scenario, in every game.
And the bottom line is that it may not matter. Unlike in years past, the Lakers need the vast majority of their team to show up in order to have a chance at winning. Doing so will not (virtually) guarantee victory. And if the Lakers get an early taste of strong effort leading to defeat, I can very easily see certain elements (i.e. Bynum) checking out in a hurry. Make no mistake, if enough things go right, the Lakers can win this series. With MWP on Durant, Kobe on Westbrook, and enough Lakers size to punish the Thunder inside, there is a clear formula for making it happen, with how to handle Harden the only unknown, though it is a big one. But the far more likely outcome, at least based on what we've seen this season and in these playoffs, is for one bad outcome to become many, and an avalanche of negative energy to undo any hope the Lakers have of building momentum.
Prediction: Thunder in 5