Fresh off of a grueling battle with the smaller but quicker Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Lakers are set to square off against an Oklahoma City Thunder team with just as much speed as well as adequate size capable of thwarting Los Angeles' biggest advantage. Had the Lakers closed out Denver in game five or six, they could have caught Oklahoma City at a relative weak point with Kendrick Perkins, their best post defender, battling a hip injury but alas, Los Angeles was taken to seven games and the Thunder will be extremely fresh come Monday night.
Just like the Nuggets, the Thunder present a stark contrast in play style for the Lakers. They play extremely fast (they ranked seventh in pace this season per HoopData), they are killer in transition and their offense is largely perimeter base. There are some large differences between the Thunder and Nuggets, though. For one, Oklahoma City's fast pace doesn't effect their defense in a negative way, as they ranked ninth in defensive efficiency this year (Denver ranked 20th). The Thunder are also much more efficient in the half-court than the Nuggets, which is scary considering the success Denver had in the half-court against Los Angeles. And last but not least, the Thunder are a significantly better three-point shooting team than Denver (they shot 36% from deep during the regular season to Denver's 32%), which gives them another dynamic in transition that the Nuggets sorely lacked.
When the Thunder have the ball
Scott Brooks and his staff have gotten a ton of criticism this season for their team's jumpshot oriented half-court offense but that is criticism is off base. Regardless of whether or not you like OKC's style in the half-court, the fact is that it worked, as they finished second in offensive efficiency this season. Additionally, the Thunder ranked only 12th in three point attempts per game and 24th in 16-23 foot jumpers per game (they also made the highest percentage in the league). The Thunder are a team that has a fantastic mix of baskets at the rim, mid-range jumpers and three-point shots that also posted the top free throw rate in the NBA (they are the only team in the league that had a higher free throw rate than the Nuggets).
When you start to look at how the Thunder score their points you see some real reasons for concern for the Lakers.
No team in the NBA got better scoring production from their pick-and-roll ball handlers this season. Not the Clippers, not the Suns, not the Spurs. Ball-handlers on pick-and-rolls scored 0.894 points per possession for the Thunder this season and shot 44% from the field. What makes it even more impressive is that OKC has three players that are stellar when running this set as opposed to having one player that runs dozens of pick-and-rolls a game like Chris Paul or Steve Nash. The Thunder can give it to any one of their three stars and expect a bucket. Russell Westbrook has a deadly mid-range pull-up when turning the corner, James Harden can't be stopped when he decides to go to the basket and Kevin Durant brings a little bit of both to the table. Not even the Miami Heat boast this kind of scoring versatility on pick-and-rolls.
What the Thunder do in pick-and-rolls is easily the biggest difference between this team and the one the Lakers took out a couple of seasons ago.
There was a point in time when Westbrook pulling up for a mid-range jumper allowed the defense to breathe a sign of relief. Now he's an above average mid-range shooter and unless he has an off night, defenses are often in a lose-lose situation. Of point guards that shot at least three shots from 16-23 feet a game this season, the only players that shot a better percentage than Westbrook, who finished at 43%, were Jose Calderon, Chris Paul, Luke Ridnour and Steve Nash. Westbrook still lacks much of a game between 5-15 feet but since he's either getting to the rim or shooting the mid-range jumper whenever he pleases, that's not much of a deficiency.
Durant has always been seen as a good shooter but now he's stepped into elite territory, which makes him a deadly threat off the pick-and-roll. Durant shot 46% from 16-23 feet this season. For comparison's sake, that's 7% higher than LeBron James (39%) and 11% higher than Carmelo Anthony (35%). The hole in Durant's game is still his playmaking ability off of this set. He does a poor job hitting the role man and spot-up shooters. He does succeed when the Thunder send a cutter as he comes off the screen but even then that's more scripted action than pure playmaking. Regardless, Durant is only a more dangerous mid-range shooter and his improved handle will probably lead to a few less turnovers in his second career post-season battle with Metta World Peace.
The real gem here is Harden. In case you were living under a rock during the regular season, Harden's incredible performance in game four of OKC's first round series against the Mavericks was a textbook display of how to play pick-and-roll basketball and just another example of how good this guy can be if the entire offense was run through him - and late in games, it always should be.
Via Synergy Sports Technology, here are some mind blowing numbers on Harden this year: Of players that ran at least 250 pick-and-rolls this season, nobody in the league produced more than Harden and it wasn't even close. Harden's 1.06 PPP mark was the highest the NBA has seen since prime CP3 in 2008. The only player since 2004, when Synergy started tracking games, to produce more points per possession was Chauncey Billups in 2007 (1.085 PPP) but a lot of that has to do with Billups shooting threes and Harden getting to the rim. Harden shot 50% on pick-and-rolls this year to Billups' (still impressive) 46% in 07. And finally, when you go off score%, which is literally the percentage of possessions a player scored on in pick-and-rolls, Harden's 52.3% mark - yes, he scored on more than half of his pick-and-roll possessions - is the best in the NBA since the stat has been around.
And if you think that's bad you can basically take everything I just said and apply it again to isolation situations. The looks get a bit easier for Westbrook, Durant and Harden when they come off a pick or force a switch but it's not like they need those screens to score. The Thunder ranked second in the NBA in PPP scored on ISOs this season behind only the Clippers, which is all thanks to CP3. Durant can shoot over anybody, Westbrook can get his jumper off or blow by anybody, and Harden's incredible first step, which is very Paul Pierce like (his drives don't reek of athletic grace so much as deception and a brilliant handle), gets him to the basket whenever he wants to be there.
Pick-and-rolls and isolations make up nearly half of OKC's half-court offense. Their other two main components - spot-ups and off screen plays - almost always feed off those two things. Perhaps the best part about the Thunder's offensive is that when one of their stars has the ball the other(s) is not rendered useless like Dwyane Wade often is when LeBron has the ball or Amare with Carmelo. Durant and Harden are great spot-up shooters while Westbrook is a pretty good one that can also cut to the basket. On top of the stars, guys like Thabo Sefolosha (44% from three this year), Derek Fisher (63% from three this post-season, noted playoff hero) and Serge Ibaka (the only power forwards that shot a better percentage from 16-23 feet than Ibaka this season: David West, Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass and Dirk Nowitzki) are all threats when defenses collapse on OKC's stars.
The Lakers have been a pretty good defensive team all season long but it's quite obvious that OKC presents a plethora of match-up problems. The Lakers essentially have just two good defenders on the wing (Kobe and MWP) and their big men, while capable shot blockers in the right situations, aren't quick enough on their feet to defend the basket against these kind of athletes (Westbrook, Durant and Harden are completely different animals than Lawson, Gallinari and Afflalo). Everyone else is a defensive liability in most cases.
I'd imagine that Kobe will guard Westbrook and MWP will guard Durant in crunchtime but Los Angeles probably won't get that match-up all game long, which means they will often be vulnerable, and they are still one defender short for Harden when all three of them are on the floor (Mike Brown may have to consider going without a point guard for stretches in this series). As Ty Lawson proved in round one, Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake will get burned by anyone that is fast and can dribble a basketball and given the Lakers the propensity to switch on screen and rolls, Bynum and Gasol will probably get torched several times a night by several different guys, too.
I went to games three and four of the OKC/Dallas series and what stood out the most about this Thunder team was their ability to win even if Kevin Durant has an off shooting night, which is something they couldn't do as well even last year. Durant dominated game three but he shot poorly in game two and had an average game in game four and the Thunder overcame it because Westbrook dominated game two and Harden dominated game four. As we saw just a couple of weeks ago, the Thunder took the Lakers to double overtime in a game that Harden was elbowed out of while Durant and Westbrook shot a combined 14 of 56 from the field (25%) and it took a barrage of incredible shots from Kobe to pull out on the win on their home floor.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, their biggest defensive weakness plays into Oklahoma City's greatest offensive strength. Kobe and MWP should hold their own on most isolation plays but once the Thunder start bringing Gasol and Bynum away from the basket the Lakers will have little chance of stopping them.
When the Lakers have the ball
As you've probably read over one thousand times in your life, the Lakers have these two seven footers that happen to be really good at the game of basketball (except, you know, when they aren't). And again for the 1000th time, the Lakers will need to go into the post to establish their pace in this series and to take advantage of their size. Per Synergy, the Lakers ranked first in the NBA in PPP scored on post-ups this season. There were 16 players that had more than 300 post-up possessions this season, of which the Lakers have three (Bynum, Gasol and Kobe). By position, only LaMarcus Aldridge was better than Pau, only Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert were better than Bynum and Kobe was the only guard on the list. Gasol shot 49% from the block, 48% for Bynum and 41% for Kobe. So, yeah, it's probably a good idea to go to those guys.
But again, unfortunately for the Lakers, their biggest offensive strength, which is normally a tremendous advantage personnel wise, too, also plays into Oklahoma City's best defensive attribute.
Kendrick Perkins is the best post defender in the league. He held his man to 36% shooting on post-ups this season and just 26% on isolations and he is very good at ready off ball cuts by big men that dive into the lane. Andrew Bynum played on one leg the last time he faced Perkins in a playoff series but now he's healthy and being featured a bit more. I think this is going to be a heck of a battle but the fact that Bynum will actually have a challenge is a change from the norm for the Lakers, which doesn't bode well for them.
Gasol will have a much easier task with Serge Ibaka on him. Even with his shot blocking numbers, it was a joke that Ibaka was considered for the defensive player of the year award considering all of his defensive metrics are average or bad. The problem is that Gasol has pretty much never shown the "I'm going to take you down to the block and punish you for being an undisciplined defender and roast you for 30 points" mindset that Dirk had last post-season when he torched Ibaka. Gasol has the talent to do something similar but I think we've reached a point where that kind of performance would be a total (and extremely pleasant) surprise. And when Gasol is not actively challenging Ibaka, that frees him up to challenge every other Laker (including Bynum downlow) as a weakside shot blocker.
I suppose it's a good thing that OKC doesn't have to double Bynum in the post considering how poorly he handles those situations but that also means the Lakers' spot-up shooters will have bodies attached to them most of the time and unless Bynum dominates the top post defender in the league, the Lakers will struggle offensively. Playing through Gasol is obviously an extremely enticing idea with Ibaka on him but who knows which version of him shows up. And the Thunder always have the fallback option of placing Nick Collison on Gasol, which is a better defensive match-up for them.
Jordan Hill will be a player to watch in this series. It was his play against the Thunder in the infamous elbow game that opened Mike Brown's eyes to potential that almost all of us already saw and earned Hill a rotation spot over Josh McRoberts. He's the only big man on the roster capable of switching a screen and not getting burned, he's the only big on the roster capable of hedging a screen, and he's the only big on the roster capable of forcing the defense to respect the roll part of the pick-and-roll. It's a lofty goal but if you can get eight points and eight boards a night from Hill that can go along way against a team as athletic as OKC. Of course, that still isn't a humungous factor.
So, what this all boils down to for me is that, if the Lakers win this series, it will be because of Kobe Bryant's brilliance. I know that doesn't sound out of the ordinary but really, when was the last time the Lakers needed the Black Mamba to show up for every minute of every game in a series to win? As the Lakers proved against the Nuggets in game seven, they could win that series with Kobe distributing and without having to get 40 from him. They've also won playoff games with Kobe having off nights. That's not to say that Kobe hasn't been necessary, of course, it's just that the Lakers' have had the potential to win in the post-season on the strength of their bigs with Kobe playing just good games by his standards.
I don't see that happening against the Thunder. The Lakers have run into a team that can match their size on offense and that will score a ton on their defense. An efficient 25-point, six assist, five rebound night from Kobe won't be enough against this team. He needs to have the kind of series he had against the Suns in 2010 when he averaged 33 points on 52% shooting (and 45% from three), eight assists and seven rebounds a night. He needs to be great for the Lakers to even have a chance and then they'll need Bynum and Gasol to play well and at least one role player (Blake, Barnes, MWP, Hill,
Goudelock) to have a good game to win. That's just how good this Thunder team is.
Luckily, Kobe does have a pretty good opportunity to explode. Kobe had some really rough shooting nights in that raucous OKC arena in 2010 and he shot 31% against the Thunder in three regular season games this year but I think there's a good chance he has a couple of those classic Kobe nights in this series. One of the reasons I believe that is because Thabo Sefolosha, despite having a reputation as a defensive stopper, is one of the worst isolation defenders in the NBA and James Harden, the other player that will spend a good amount of time on Kobe, is also awful at guarding his man (that's pretty much the only flaw in his game right now).
Sefolosha allowed 49% shooting and over a point per possession to his man in one-on-one situations this season and Harden allowed .911 PPP (bottom 23 percentile in the league) and a score on 43% of isolation possessions. I think the combination of those numbers as well as Kobe's usual playoff mentality, he's primed for some big games. There is one strategic move that Scott Brooks can go to, however, that could severely hurt the Lakers' chances of winning this series: putting Kevin Durant on Kobe.
Durant's biggest improvement to date has been his defense. Here is a full list of players that guarded 100 isolations this season and allowed fewer PPP than Durant: Joe Johnson and LeBron James. That's the list. Durant has begun to harness his length beautifully on that end of the floor and the result was 26% shooting for his man on isolations. It would be a risky move because Bryant could conceivably get Durant into some foul trouble on the block but there isn't a player on OKC's roster that would give Bryant more trouble than Durant.
It still looks weird as I type it but the Lakers enter this series as heavy underdogs. That alone signifies that this series has the potential to carry one of those "changing of the guard" narratives that the media loves. The Lakers were probably angrier than the Mavericks were when Durant hit that game-winner in their first game of the playoffs and Dirk missed a wide open three in crunchtime in game two, which all but took Dallas out of the series. Instead of lucking into a picture perfect revenge scenario against the Mavericks they are now squared off against a supremely talented Thunder team that Dirk Nowitzki said had the same look in their eyes that Dallas did last year. And unless the beady eyes of the Black Mamba are focused more intently than ever on another ring, the Lakers' season will end in the second round for the second straight year.
PPP stats courtesy of Synergy Sports Technology