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Game Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder vs Los Angeles Lakers

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It's still quite early in the NBA season, so drawing any concrete conclusions from the action thus far is a dangerous exercise.  However, there have been quite a few surprise twists at the start of this NBA season.  There are exactly zero people in the world who thought the Bucks (or Brandon Jennings) would look so good early on.  Not too many had the Spurs pegged for serious early season trouble.  The Cavs started off poor before ending up right where everyone thought they'd be.  The Suns are way ahead of preseason predictions.  Over the next several months, many of these storylines will correct themselves, and a few will stand the test of time and make everyone look like idiots. 

Which brings us to tonight's opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder.  They've started the season pretty well, with a 7-6 record that includes road victories over the Spurs and Miami Heat, as well as a home shellacking of the Orlando Magic.  They currently sit tied for 7th in the Western Conference, a borderline playoff team.  If you were to look at last season, where they started with a record of 3-456 (approximate) and ended up with a record of 23-59, good for 13th in the West, you might think this start would qualify as one of those major surprises I was speaking of earlier.  You'd be wrong.  This Thunder team is surprising absolutely no one.  Just about everyone had them pegged as a much improved team over the last year (mainly due to another year of experience for an extremely young core).  Not everyone thinks they'll make the playoffs (and keep in mind one of the teams currently below them is San Antonio), but the consensus around the league is that the Thunder will end up somewhere in the 7-10 range in the Western Conference.  There should be no surprise to their season thus far.

After the jump, we'll look at the goings on for both teams, and of course, match-ups

Catching up with the Lakers (9-3, 3rd in West, 105.9 OR, 101.8 DR, 94.6 Pace)

Only one thing needs to be said about any developments regarding the Los Angeles Lakers in the last week.  We got back Pau Gasol.  As Josh mentioned, having Pau back is wonderful on so many levels.  He's incredibly skilled, he gives the Lakers yet another weapon, he allows for the Lakers rotations to go back to their natural place.  Many are calling him the best post player in the NBA right now.  But for me, the biggest reason why I'm so happy to see Pau is aesthetic.  Gasol plays basketball beautifully, and the Lakers play a much more beautiful game with Gasol on the court.  With Gasol on the court, the Lakers offense goes from being decently efficient to almost artistic.  That is why Pau's return has let us all remember what it was like when things were good.  Things are good again.

As one big man came back from injury, the other picked up another malady.  Andrew Bynum jammed his ankle in Thursday night's game against the Bulls.  However, it's not a serious injury, and on Friday Bynum was already confident he'd be able to go tonight.  Keep an eye on his movement out there, but otherwise, don't worry your pretty little head over this.

Catching up with the Thunder (7-6, tied 7th in West, 104.5 OR, 101.1 DR, 91.8 Pace)

You can see all that is good and bad about the Thunder in their play over the last week.  They are 3-2 in their last 5 games.  See if you can spot the up and down tendencies in a young team.  Win @ San Antonio, Loss home vs. LA Clippers, W @ Miami, L @ Orlando, W home vs. Washington.  The loss to Orlando in Orlando is completely understandable, especially considering the Magic had a solid revenge factor going for that previously mentioned.  But a loss at home against the Clippers, sandwiched between two very decent road wins against good teams, is a clear sign that the Thunder's biggest issue remains inconsistency.  At this point, the Thunder are a team that can play with anybody, and if you catch them on an "up" night, you'll be in for a struggle no matter you are.  But they can also lose to any team in the league (except the Nets, nobody can lose to the Nets) when that "down" night comes along.

Match-ups

Lakers starting 5: Bynum, Gasol, Artest, Bryant, Fisher

Lakers bench: Farmar, Brown, Odom

Those of you paying attention might have noticed that I only listed 8 players in describing the Lakers personnel tonight.  That's no accident.  Phil Jackson has experimented as much as he needs to.  He's shortening the rotations.  In the last two games, after the Lakers lost two in a row to Denver and Houston, the Lakers have only had 8 players play more than 10 minutes in a game.  In the back court, Jackson has finally decided which two guards have curried his favor, and it is no surprise to see Sasha "The artist formerly known as The Machine" Vujacic is the odd guard out.  Only 5 minutes per game the last two for Sasha, and all playing time has been garbage (the time, not necessarily his play, although it could probably apply to both).  In the front court, with Pau returning, you will hardly ever see a time when 2 of Odom, Gasol, and Bynum aren't on the court.  And, sadly, with Luke Walton's injury, Ron Artest is being backed up by ... no-one.  Any minutes that Artest doesn't play are patched together with Bryant at the SF.  You might see some spot minutes by players not included on that list, but none of them will approach 10 minutes per game unless it's a blowout, or there's another injury. 

Thunder starting 5: Durant, Green, Krstic, Westbrook, Sefolosha

Thunder bench: Harden, Collison, Thomas, Ollie

Looking at the two rosters, and taking into account the return of Gasol, the Lakers have a ridiculous advantage in the post.  Jeff Green is undersized, Krstic is wafer-thin.  Bynum and Gasol should destroy the Thunder front line, and the rest of the team should concentrate on getting them the opportunities to do so.  Etan Thomas and Nick Collison are more formidable (in size at least) off the bench, but they don't start for a reason.  I know it sounds like a broken record, but a Lakers victory lies on the block.

In the first game between these two teams, the Lakers struggled behind a poor shooting night from Kobe (9-22) and a non-existent bench (6 points).  In the end, they managed to pull out an OT win, but it was a tough affair that saw starters play heavy minutes (Bynum played more than one normally can in an NBA game, logging over 48 minutes).  In the first game, Artest made life hard, but not miserable, on Kevin Durant.  28 points on 24 shots for Durant. I expect roughly the same tonight.

A couple things working in LA's favor tonight vs. the first game.  The bench was horrible in the first game, now the bench doesn't play as much, so I'll be surprised if the Thunder can take as much advantage of a 2nd unit that will contain two starters (and Lamar Odom), as opposed to a 2nd unit containing no starters and no Odom.  Without those runs against the Lakers bench, the first game would have been a comfortable win for LA.  Plus, with Gasol back, it will be impossible to ignore the post as much as happened in the first game.  Bynum was 10-15, but nobody gave him the ball down the stretch, so the Lakers did not continue to take advantage of his high efficiency.  With two high-efficiency options down low, I'm hoping they will be impossible to ignore.

So, all signs point to a Lakers victory, but do remember that we've already lost at home to Houston, the team we beat in OT on the road the very next night after beating the Thunder in OT on the road.  Taking the team lightly is an opportunity for disaster.