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So, with the Thunder coming to town this Sunday to kick off the 1 vs. 8 seed first-round matchup in the NBA playoffs, ‘tis the time for previews. Earlier on, my esteemed colleague Dexter Fishmore posted a statistical preview, now it’s my turn to chip in with a positional preview. I’ll take a look at all five starting positions, and then compare the benches primarily as a single entity.
For all intents and purposes of this preview, Andrew Bynum will be back in his starting position, at about 50-60% (he practiced yesterday and reported no ill-effects, but it’s the day after that matters) and play 20-25 minutes per game (for the first round, at least); Kobe will be back, and be right at his season averages (the same injuries he’s suffered all season still afflict him), and Sasha will miss the series with his ankle sprain. Luke’s back also stiffened up after last game, so it’s possible he may miss the first game or two, and be limited after that; and DJ Mbenga is currently suffering from a concussion from practice (if Bynum really was the one who gave it to him, we can assume Bynum is playing well), so put him down as missing the first two or three games. On the Thunder side of things, there are no injuries that I know of.
Also, until substantial proof is given otherwise, none of the individuals on this team, nor the team itself, can be guaranteed to flip a ‘switch’ and magically start playing better now that it’s the playoffs; we’ll go by how they’ve been playing over the whole season.
LEAD GUARDS: Derek Fisher vs. Russell Westbrook
Derek Fisher’s intangibles win this matchup. Next position, please!
Ha. Ha. Ha.
If Derek Fisher is actually called upon to defend Russ, we’ll be cringing all series. Hell, if Dex makes ‘Russell Westbrook blow-by’ a drinking-game trigger, we’ll all be comatose by the end of the first quarter. Westbrook is simply too quick, too strong, too fast and too big for Fisher to handle. While Fisher is a very strong point guard, with good size if not height, Russ is bigger and stronger. And the quickness debate is just sickening. Russ is one of the speediest point guards in the league, whilst Fish is ridiculously old and was never that fast to begin with.
Fisher has played some decent ball of late, holding his own on defense (for Fish’s standards – he still gets blown away if compared to any regular point guard), and chipping in relatively efficiently on offense; and he’s well known to step it up in the playoffs, but this is simply a matchup that he cannot win. Westbrook is a speedy point guard, Fisher’s bane, and one of the best PGs in the league, while Fish is arguably the worst starter at his position in the NBA.
Expect to see Kobe defending Russ often, as while Russ is still faster than Kobe, the margin of difference is far less than if it were Fish in his shoes. Kobe’s superior size, strength and length should also provide problems for Russ, as well as Kobe’s ability to play exceptional lockdown defense when motivated. Russ turns the ball over a lot, and Kobe is good at getting steals and deflections, therefore expect a lot of throwaways by the young point guard. Russ is also highly inefficient from deep, so Kobe could play free safety to an extent, giving Russ the ‘Rajon Rondo treatment.’
TWO GUARDS: Kobe Bryant vs. Thabo Sefolosha
Thabo will most definitely be matched up on Kobe for the majority of the time, as he is Oklahoma’s defensive specialist. He’s damn good at his job, too, being likely to land on at least one of the All-Defensive Teams and even garnering some light DPoY consideration. He’s long and quick and has great hands. He has a good stance, doesn’t fall for too many fakes and has a lockdown mentality.
It’s well known it’s impossible to ‘lock down’ Kobe, as such, but paramount to each team’s chances of winning is the level to which Thabo slows/frustrates Kobe. Being nagged with multitude injuries throughout this season, it is now easier to slow Kobe than any time this decade, and if Thabo makes him inefficient enough, Kobe will likely get frustrated and try shooting his way out of it, a positive nightmare for the Lakers as he will be ignoring their primary advantage in their frontline size by doing so. It is tantamount that Kobe, if having an off-game, realizes this and instead takes on his facilitator persona.
In terms of Thabo, he’s not too gifted offensively, whereas his backcourt partner Russ is, quite simply, a freak. With our well documented defensive issues at the point guard position, it is very likely that Kobe will spend most of his time defending Westbrook, while Fisher will defend the far larger player, but offensive nonfactor, in Thabo. The key to this matchup is simply to avoid being pushed into the post, and having crisp help-defense schemes if Thabo does try posting Fisher up to exploit the mismatch.
WINGS: Ron Artest vs. Kevin Durant
Well, Kevin Durant recently won the scoring title over the likes of Kobe, LeBron, Wade, Melo, Dirk, etc. ‘Young up-and-coming prospect,’ my ass; this lanky little kid is now one of the best offensive players in the game, and possibly the best pure scorer in the game today. 30.1 points per game on 60.6% TS; getting to the line ridiculously often (a 50% free throw rate) and converting at a sexy 90% when there. 6’10" with long arms and a picture-perfect shooting stroke, this kid was built to score. He also garners rebounds at a nice 7.6 per game, despite being lanky.
He displays nice athleticism, and can get to the hoop well, though not as good a finisher as some of the other offensive juggernauts in this league, likely due to his lanky frame. He makes up for this, however, by getting to the line, with the tied-lead in FTAs per game along with LeBron James at 10.2. While people such as Phil Jackson and Kevin Garnett may believe his method of attaining this title to be dubious, the fact remains that the kid gets to the line, a LOT.
Ron-Ron, on the other side of things, is the best SF defender in the league, and one of the best of all time. If anyone can defend Durant, it’s him. Durant is quicker and taller than Ronny boy, but Ron is infinitely stronger. While Durant’s primary knock is his slight frame, Artest is one of the three strongest non-big-men in the league (along with Melo and LeBron), and key to this matchup is Ron’s ability to utilize his strength effectively in making Durant uncomfortable without fouling. Durant is primarily a shooter, so Artest’s physicality won’t have as great an effect against him as it would against players whose primary strength is, no pun intended, their strength; but it can still make Durant get mighty annoyed, and thus start taking bad shots.
That’s key, here. Durant is an exceptional scorer. But he is still young. Artest was winning DPoY’s while Durant was still in middle school. Artest will know all the veteran tricks that can be used to frustrate the Durantula, and that’s the only advantage we have in this matchup.
Ron Artest has held Durant to five points per game under his season average, on poor shooting numbers, and we should expect this to continue or even improve, considering that by and large Ron’s defense has improved throughout the course of the season.
On the other side of the matchup, Ron is still in the midst of a horrific shooting slump, but against such a lanky defender in Durant, he can and should utilise his highly effective post game. Durant has turned into quite the nice defender, and Artest is the Lakers’ fifth option overall on offense, so we should not expect too much out of this matchup.
POWER FORWARD: Pau Gasol vs. Jeff Green
Pau Gasol has been on a tear of late, peaking at the right time. Recently, he's been the Lakers' best player, and considering OKC's lack of true frontline size, Pau should most definitely be the focal point of our offense in this series whilst Kobe plays in more of a facilitator role.
Jeff Green is a decent young player, but he’s in that dreaded ‘tweener’ mould. He’s too big and slow to play the wing, and too undersized to effectively play the four. Also, his defense is nothing special. Whenever Pau has Green on him, the ball should be force-fed to him. Green’s too small to force Pau out of the post, and too inexperienced to effectively combat Pau’s plethora of moves. Pau should shred this matchup.
Another benefit to Pau being force-fed the ball against Green is that it will tire Jeff and possibly even get him in foul trouble, a tangible benefit considering he is the Thunder’s third option on offense.
Green also isn’t too good a rebounder, thus one should expect Pau to average 12+ boards per game through the series.
In terms of defending Green, this shouldn’t be too hard for Pau. Green is decent off the dribble and is an all right long-range bomber for a four, but still substandard by league averages. Pau’s effectively defended a far more potent stretch four in Rashard Lewis last year. In the low post, Green is simply too small to give Pau trouble. All Gasol needs to watch for is Green’s off-ball movement and cutting, to ensure he doesn’t get any easy points off backdoor cuts and the like.
PIVOT: Andrew Bynum vs. Nenad Krstic
Nenad Krstic is a mediocre big man. He’s a true 7-footer, but he carries that dreaded ‘forward-center’ moniker and is pretty small compared to a true center like Drew.
He’s been labeled as ‘Euro-soft’ before and should be easy for Drew to manhandle on the low block. He’s not particularly athletic, so Drew should be able to outrun and out-jump him.
He doesn’t block shots, so that makes it easier for the Lakers’ perimeter players to drive it in, without fear of a true big man stopping them at the hoop, and is a highly substandard rebounder, thus giving the Lakers more cause to dominate the glass.
Drew should be able to abuse Krstic in the paint, and also lose him on cuts to get to the hoop for easy alley-oops.
Krstic is pretty much a nonfactor offensively, and as such Drew should be able to help on drives and cuts from other Thunder players.
The Thunder bench is only really four-deep, consisting primarily of lottery pick James Harden, nice young point-guard prospect Eric Maynor and frontcourt partners Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison. Harden is far and away their best bench player, being a decent scorer and making good decisions with the ball. He’s shown the potential to go off and drop 20 points from time to time but hasn’t lived up to the expectations generally attributed to a number-four draft pick. On our end of that spectrum we have Shannon Brown, a decently talented offensive player who sometimes makes bad decisions but can still go off and score well from time to time.
The Thunder bench is only really four-deep, consisting primarily of lottery pick James Harden, nice young point-guard prospect Eric Maynor and frontcourt partners Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison.
Harden is far and away their best bench player, being a decent scorer and making good decisions with the ball. He’s shown the potential to go off and drop 20 points from time to time but hasn’t lived up to the expectations generally attributed to a number-four draft pick. On our end of that spectrum we have Shannon Brown, a decently talented offensive player who sometimes makes bad decisions but can still go off and score well from time to time.
Brown is more athletic, whilst Harden is a better decision-maker and ball-handler. Harden is a better shooter from deep (37.5%), but Brown is streaky and can easily go on a hot streak. Brown is a decent defender, and should be able to battle Harden to almost a halt.
Maynor comes up against Jordan Farmar. Both are young point guards who have nice potential. Maynor struggles to get minutes behind Westbrook, while Farmar’s inconsistency and wonky decision-making lead to him getting limited minutes behind Fisher. Maynor is an inefficient scorer, but a good distributor, while Farmar is more of a pure scorer. Jordan Farmar at his best is better than Eric Maynor at his best, but generally Maynor is slightly better than Farmar.
The Thunder backup frontcourt partners Ibaka and Collison are both decent, slightly undersized traditional bigs. No match for Odom’s versatility, provided Odom is aggressive, this is one of the matchups most heavily tilted in our favour.