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Without LeBron James, Lakers face off against Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

With LeBron James out, the Lakers have been sliding down the Western Conference playoff seedings. They’ll have to hold off Paul George and the rolling Thunder if they want to buck that trend.

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

A former future Los Angeles Laker will be stepping into Staples Center tonight for the first time since he re-upped with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Paul George, Luke Walton and everyone else can act like it’s just any other game, but Lakers fans almost certainly won’t treat it like the average Wednesday evening affair.

The thing is: The Lakers legitimately need to win this game, and any other win they can get while they try to tread water while LeBron James is ailing with a strained groin. They find themselves a mere two games ahead of the ninth seed (and missing the playoffs) right now, and while there is still time to make up for a midseason slump, you’d really rather not dig a hole if it can be avoided.

Oklahoma City heads into tonight’s game two and a half games ahead of the Lakers, and currently reside in the third seed in the West, though it should be pointed out they have only won six of their last ten and Russell Westbrook finishing 2018 in a slump.

Lonzo Ball will probably have to go up against Westbrook, so hopefully that slump continues. Ball should also be able to take advantage of some of Westbrook’s defensive lapses (that usually occur when his guy doesn’t have the ball), but regardless, this should be a fun aspect of the game to watch.

It’s not just George and Westbrook that make the Thunder dangerous, though. It’s also their defense, as Walton outlined to reporters at the Lakers’ Tuesday practice.

”They have a really good defensive team. They have length, and size, and versatility and veterans that have been doing it for a while now,” Walton said. “Look at Steven Adams, the way that he sets the tone with them for that group and their physicality.

“And then some of those wings they have, and Grant being able to guard wings and power forwards. Paul George has led the league in steals, I won’t say how many times because I’m not sure, but he’s always up there. So they’ve got really good defenders, and you can tell they buy in to that end of the floor,” Walton continued.

“For us, we’ve got to be ready to be strong with the ball, and willing to make quick decisions and get the ball moving side-to-side, because if we stick and play iso-ball they’re going to be loading up on us all night.”

But as far as offense goes, George is also having arguably the best season of his career, and is right in the thick of the MVP conversation. Obviously, you’d prefer to have James available to go blow-for-blow with George, but this will be an interesting test for Brandon Ingram, who will likely draw the matchup with George defensively, and also be asked to create for his teammates the way he did against the Sacramento Kings a few days ago.

Tip-off for tonight’s festivities is 7:30 PM PST. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN and locally on Spectrum SportsNet.

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