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Lakers - Thunder Preview: Nothing but uphill battles left

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As the Los Angeles Lakers have waltzed their way through the regular season (sometimes referring to their results, and sometimes referring to their effort), we've been preparing you for this day.  As they've piled up wins, and losses, we've been warning about taking any kind of solace in the fact that the team is not too far off the pace of the league's best records.  Hopefully, those messages have sunk in, because the warnings are no longer necessary.  The Lakers have been fighting lightweights for most of the season, and their schedule is about to jump multiple weight classes.

A 30-12 record doesn't seem overly poor on the surface of things.  Sure, they are miles behind San Antonio in the race for the league's (and conference's) best record, but the Spurs are on pace for 70 wins right now, so either they will fall off, or they will have the best record in the league, so there's no point worrying too much about them.  Everyone else is well within reach; Boston is two games up, Miami has an identical record, and everyone else is staring at the Lakers' tailpipe.  But we know better than to feel comforted by this.  The most telling stat about the Lakers season to date is this: They are 5-5 against teams that currently have winning records.

You might be thinking the most important part of that stat is that the Lakers are struggling to beat good teams.  In order to win a championship, you need to beat the 2nd best team in the league more than 50% of the time, to say nothing of how you should perform against the teams struggling to make the playoffs.  The Lakers have been struggling to beat good teams, but that's not what's important.  A 5-5 record against the league's better half means the Lakers have only played 10 games against the league's better half.  10 games out of 42.  When it comes to these matters, the schedule more or less balances out, and that means the Lakers have a whole hell of a lot of catching up to do.

How much?  27 of their remaining 40 games are against teams with winning records.  They have yet to face tonight's opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, with three contests remaining.  Same goes for the next opponent, the Dallas Mavericks.  They've got three remaining contests against the Spurs, two against Eastern Conference powerhouses Boston and Orlando, and a road date in Miami as well.  Throw in a few more games against the rest of the best in the Western Conference, and the Lakers would do spectacularly just to match the 30-12 pace they've set for themselves in the first three months of the season.

This is also where the rubber will meet the road regarding why exactly the Lakers have struggled so far this season.  If it's malaise, a matter of playing down to the level of their opponent, then we will see a much stronger team over the last half of the season.  If it's a combination of age, lack of hunger, and just plain poor play, the last half of the season will be a far greater struggle than the first half.  The potential for truly damning consequences exists.  The Lakers are currently just three games ahead of a host of teams (including tonight's opponent) in the Western Conference, and failure to hold the hounds at bay would result in the Lakers spending a majority of their postseason run on the road, no matter how long said road lasts. 

So, without further ado, let's take a closer look at tonight's opponent.  You should remember these guys.  After all, the Oklahoma City Thunder, those plucky young upstarts, proved to be the most challenging opponent the Lakers faced in last year's Western Conference playoffs.  With their tremendous youth, everyone expected them to make another jump from last year's 8th seed to deep playoff run contender this season, and that jump has been made.  The Thunder currently sit in 3rd place in the Western Conference.

But it's been a strange journey.  Last year, the Thunder combined a strong defensive presence with a team that often struggled to put the ball in the basket, outside of wunderkind Kevin Durant.  This year, the defense has regressed as the offense has developed, and this has all come while Durant has come back to earth just a bit (we're talking exosphere to thermosphere people).  Even stranger, the Thunder have gone from not being a very strong team in close ball games to being one of the best in the league.  Consider their point margin.  This year, sporting a 27-13 record that projects to 56 wins, and currently good for 5th in the league, the Thunder are only beating teams by an average of 1.9 points per game.  Last year, winning only 50 games and valiantly losing to our Lakers in the 1st round as the Western Conference's 8th seed, the Thunder's average point margin was 3.5 points per game.  Point margin is often pointed to as the best determining factor (even better than record) for determining how strong a team is, so it's quite possible that Oklahoma City isn't as good as they were last year, but they sure as hell keep on winning.

They do it because they possess not one, but two, of the league's best options for end game scoring, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  Both players absolutely excel at getting to the line, and at punishing teams when they get there.  The Thunder have the best free throw shooting in the league (and in fact are on historically prodigious pace), and they are 3rd best in the league at getting to the line.  Neither attribute is by accident.  Coach Scotty Brooks noticed how many games the Thunder lost because of poor free throw performance (both in drawing fouls, and in turning those fouls into points) and so he has spent the better part of two years drilling the free throw winning and making mentality.  Considering the results, with the improvement at the free throw line coming through in their overall record, all you can say is Nice Job, coach.

The Lakers just so happen to counter with one of the league's best non-fouling defenses.  Since their arrival as potential champions, Phil Jackson has constantly trained the Lakers to avoid giving their opponent freebies as much as possible, so if anybody is prepared to counter OKC's free throw heavy attack, it's the purple and gold.  OKC also happens to be terrible from behind the 3 point line, shooting only 33.3% from behind the arc on the season.  Look for a highly packed paint, with the Lakers encouraging 3 point shots from anyone not named Kevin Durant.  In fact, I'd be surprised if Kobe isn't playing his Rajon Rondo defense against Russell Westbrook.

On the other side of the ball, the Thunder don't really have the size to compete with a healthy front line for Los Angeles.  Andrew Bynum should find plenty of success in the middle, and if Pau Gasol is game for it, success will be relatively easy for him as well.  OKC has a couple of guys who are above average (read: better than most, not necessarily good) at limiting Kobe Bryant, so the heavy reliance on Kobe's strong play of late, both in scoring and setting up the offense, could be a negative factor for Los Angeles.

At this point, you people know the drill.  The Lakers could win easily, or get destroyed.  A strong performance will have the Lakers firing on all cylinders, while a bad loss will have people questioning just how many cylinders the Lakers have.  Either way, the Lakers have an uphill battle towards finishing their season strong.  Today is the first step towards finding out whether it'll be a tough mountain pass in the Tour de France, where the Lakers prove themselves strongest when it matters most, or whether playing out the regular season will end up a Sisyphean feat.

 

 

Thunder

Lakers

RECORD..................................

27-13 (5th – t)

30-12 (3rd – t)

NET POINTS PER GAME..........

+1.9 (12th)

+7.7 (3rd)

PACE.......................................

93.3 (12th)

92.4 (16th)

OFFENSIVE RATING................

110.0 (8th)

112.2 (1st)

Turnover Rate (Off.).................

12.9% (6th)

12.8% (2nd)

FTA/FGA (Off.)..........................

0.38 (3rd)

0.29 (20th)

Free-Throw %..........................

83.1% (1st)

78.6% (5th)

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)..................

0.19 (26th)

0.23 (12th)

3PT% (Off.)...............................

33.3% (26th)

37.1% (13th)

Effective FG% (Off.)..................

49.0% (17th)

50.9% (11th)

True Shooting% (Off.)...............

55.1% (12th)

55.1% (11th)

Off Rebounding Rate...............

26.6% (12th)

30.0% (3rd)

DEFENSIVE RATING................

107.9 (17th)

103.9 (9th)

Turnover Rate (Def.)................

13.6% (7th)

13.1% (21st)

FTA/FGA (Def.).........................

0.30 (11th)

0.25 (2nd)

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.).................

0.19 (2nd)

0.24 (23rd)

3PT% (Def.)..............................

37.5% (25th)

34.0% (4th)

Effective FG% (Def.).................

50.4% (20th)

47.6% (5th)

True Shooting% (Def.)..............

54.3% (15th)

52.0% (5th)

Def Rebounding Rate..............

73.6% (18th)

72.7% (22nd)