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Lakers-Thunder Game 3 preview: What will the Lakers do with some breathing room?

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I could waste your time with superfluous words (and don't worry if that's what you want, because I will do so anyway), but I thought I'd just come out and say it:  The Los Angeles Lakers are likely going to lose tonight.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are not better than a Lakers team firing on all cylinders under any circumstances, but the Lakers are not firing on all cylinders.  The Thunder aren't better than a motivated Lakers team either, but every factor going into tonight's game screams that we will see a Lakers team who is willing to let this game go.  Consider that this will be the first home playoff game in this franchise's short history.  Between the fans and the ridiculously young OKC players, I expect the Ford Center to have an energy level approaching cold fusion.  I know it, you know it, and unfortunately, the Lakers know it too.  They know what it will be like, and they know what it will take to overcome that energy.  My guess?  The Lakers will evaluate all the factors involved and decide "We'll let them have this one."  A double-digit loss would not surprise me in the least.

I could be wrong.  The factors listed above could have the exact opposite effect of the one I've anticipated.  Energy is usually a good thing for a basketball team, but it is possible to have too much energy.  The Thunder could come out so amped that they can't shoot the ball.  The players could come out nervous, desperate to give the home fans what they want.  The fans could be so crazy early on that they tire themselves out.  On the flip side, the Lakers could see all their injuries and think about how great an extra week of rest would be.  They could come out with the focus that a team can only play with on the road.  They could weather the initial Thunder storm (pun intended), and deliver a properly timed counter punch that dazes both players and fans.  And there's always the outside chance that Kobe could go off for 60 and win the game just about by himself.  There are certainly reasons to believe that a Lakers victory is possible. 

But I've spent too much time watching this team, too much time analyzing their foibles, to believe we will see the Lakers put a whole lot of effort into tonight's contest.  And it's not just the players, either.  If the Thunder capitalize on the nuclear power of their arena and jump out to an early lead, don't be surprised if PJ "throws" this game like he did Game 4 in Denver last year, by playing increased minutes from the bench and saving the starters for a game with better odds of success.  Kobe and Ron Artest are both over 40 minutes played per game, Pau is pretty close, and DFish is closer to 35 than the 15 I'd like to see him getting.  If the game gets out of reach in a hurry, it's more likely Phil and the team will let it ride instead of making a concerted effort to get back in it.

Despite my Debbie Downer attitude, you'll still get your analytical money's worth, and then some, since you didn't pay for anything.  The overwhelming storyline of the first two games has been defense, and that's not likely to change tonight.  Unless something dramatic happens, neither of these teams are particularly capable of consistent scoring against the other.  Weird as it is to consider, since the Lakers do lead the series 2-0, if you gave both teams one chance to score the basketball, the Thunder do so better.  eFG is about the same over the two games, and the Thunder have a slightly higher True Shooting %.  Luckily for the Lakers, one and done is not the rule, and as Dex mentioned yesterday, the Lakers are destroying the Thunder on the offensive glass.  If the Lakers, especially the Lakers bigs, do come out motivated, look for that trend to continue, though it would be extremely difficult to duplicate Game 2's 40% Offensive Rebounding Rate.

Continuing down the obvious storyline path, how will the Thunder follow up on their 17 block Bill Russell tribute in Game 2.  One would think they've landed upon a strategy that agrees with them:  Contest everything.  Aside from the obvious prevention of Lakers scoring, those blocks helped the Thunder get a goodly amount of fast breaks and easy points in transition.  However, the strategy could quite easily backfire.  Some of you were screaming bloody murder about how many of those 17 blocks were "legitimate", and while I personally thought all but a couple were clean, the difference between a clean block and a foul can be razor thin.  If the Thunder play too aggresively, and the Lakers get into the penalty early and often, it'll help L.A. twofold.  Free throws tend to be an efficient use of possessions, and the stoppage in play would go a long way towards dissipating that home court energy.

The last stop for the Obvious train line is where I talk about how the Lakers are bad at shooting the basketball.   This is reaching epidemic proportions.   Sadly, one could label the Lakers outside shooting in this series as a mild improvement, due almost entirely to solid, if limited, efforts from the bench.  But, while helpful, improved bench shooting isn't going to get us to the promised land.  I've said it since the beginning of the playoffs, we need Ron Artest to rediscover his outside shot.  And as for the other half of the Ambiguously Poor-Shooting Duo, I've spoken ill of Derek Fisher's shooting and shot selection more times than I've showered recently. 

The other portion of Offense-Fail has to do with our inability to involve the bigs in the offense as much as we should.  I'm of the firm opinion this problem won't go away until the perimeter players can at least make the Thunder pretend to defend them.  It would be safe to ship a Ming vase with how tightly packed the paint is with Thunder defenders when the ball gets sent down to the block.  But, one other thing the Thunder are doing to effectively  defend the players that they don't have the size to defend has to do with their strategic fronting.  For analysis of this, we're going FB&G style and letting SSR member lakeshow8 take it with some fine analysis from the Game 2 postgame thread.

The biggest problem I had with this game was that the Lakers went away from the post. OKC learned in game one that if they front the post L.A. will go away from it… Phil and the lakers need to find other ways than having the big stand behind the fronter and hope for the ball… My plan would be swing the ball to the cleared out weak side wing and have gasol, bynum, or Odom make a hard baseline cut to the weak side and have the post enter on the cut…. then the passer could clear out and let the post man go to work… If OKC doubles then play basketball and pass out… Guards should look for the repost or move the ball…. All I’m saying is that having the bigs stand there with a defender fronting them is not working. Although as long as they front the Laker bigs, they have great postion on the rebound (god knows there will be a lot available with Fish and the Ronster throwing up bricks)… This would explain all of the offensive rebounds for pau and bynum. People that want to complain of Kobe’s shots tonight should understand the Lakers look to their star more than most teams and he knows this and is usually capable (barring the mounting injuries) to throw them on his back and get it done. Tonight he was able… L.A. can’t fall into the trap and rely too heavily on Kobe given his current state… There are adjustments L.A. (PHIL) need to make in order to make short work of the thunder…

Run-on sentences aside (jokes people, jokes), this analysis is spot on and I couldn't have said it better myself ... so I didn't.

In other news, OKC coach Scotty Brooks was annouced as the Coach of the Year this year, so we've just lost our edge in the coaching matchup.  Brooks matches PJ, as they each have one COTY award, so I think we can all agree the coaches just cancel each other out, right?

Game starts at 6:30, so enjoy yourselves.