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Lakers vs. Thunder Preview: Can L.A. compete without LeBron James?

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The Lakers want to “dominate” games right from the start, and they’ll probably have to do so again if they want to sweep their road back-to-back while taking on the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight. It won’t be easy with LeBron James out.

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New York Knicks v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Over the last few weeks, the usually mild-mannered (at least with the media) Frank Vogel has repeatedly used terms like “dominate” and “kill” when he describes how he wants the Los Angeles Lakers to beat their opponents right from the jump.

Vogel said he saw that mentality on display from his team when they blocked 20 shots against the Detroit Pistons — “We want to be dominant defensively,” Vogel said — but the team themselves felt like they eased up on the gas in their win against the New York Knicks on Tuesday.

That game got really physical, resulting in JaVale McGee getting taken down to the ground by Knicks guard Reggie Bullock, and forward Bobby Portis getting a Flagrant 2 foul and $25,000 fine for his hit to Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in mid-air that forced Caldwell-Pope to go through concussion protocol (he didn’t have one, and later returned to the game).

Worst was that it was the way the Knicks kept coming that ultimately resulted in Anthony Davis suffering a gluteus maximus contusion that would force him to miss (at least) the next game, and following that night, Dwight Howard said the team had a conversation about how to prevent such physicality.

“After last game against the Knicks, the hard fouls and stuff like that, we had some messages going back and forth in the group chat about how we’ve got to come out and dominate teams, and let them know that we’re not playing games,” Howard said on Spectrum SportsNet after the Lakers beat the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night, 129-114.

The Lakers certainly met that goal against the Mavericks, scoring a season high 45 points in the first quarter, and the 79 points they scored in the first half was their most in a first half since 1989. That cushion kept it from ever really feeling like Dallas could win the game, even if they rallied late amid foul trouble from Howard and McGee.

They will need that mentality again on the second night of a back-to-back when they head to Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder tonight. It wouldn’t be an easy game under normal circumstances, as the Thunder (22-16) have been one of the NBA’s success stories this season, currently sitting as the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, and boasting the league’s 10th-best defense.

These also aren’t normal circumstances. Making things far more difficult than any opponent could will be that the Lakers are missing LeBron James, with the star finally succumbing to the cold he’s been fighting for most of the week. Danny Green will also be out, while Anthony Davis appears unlikely to play:

Avery Bradley is also probable with the illness he played through against Dallas, but even if it was only James missing time, the Lakers would definitely struggle to fulfill their stated goal, and would do well just to compete against the Thunder (who had last night off) given how poorly they’ve played when James has sat this year.

The Lakers are never better than when James plays this season, outscoring opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions, and never worse than when he sits, getting outscored by 4.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.

That statistic does not bode well for their chances tonight — especially with Green out and Davis, at best, limited — but their mentality of constantly wanting to fill in for each other and fight for the guy next to them might allow them to muck the game up and sneak away with one on the strength of their defense (currently ranked third in the league, albeit mostly with James, Davis and Green in the lineup, so grain of salt there as it pertains tonight).

There is also the matter of how Chris Paul has helped Oklahoma City remain fiercely competitive this season, something the Lakers already got a taste of in their two narrow wins over the Thunder already. With a day off to prepare, it’s unlikely Paul is going to want to just let the Lakers win the season series outright tonight, especially with James and Green not playing. The Thunder will likely come ready to play, and they’ve won seven of their last eight games.

If the Lakers (31-7) want to keep their own seven-game winning streak alive, they’ll have to overcome all the adversity they’re currently facing again, and at least try to fulfill their goal of dominating right from the get-go. It won’t be easy, but this team has shown a ton of fight and pride this year. Maybe they can surprise us, no matter how unlikely it seems.

Notes and Updates

  • Here is the official Lakers status report for tonight in one convenient spot:

The Lakers and Thunder tip-off at 5:00 p.m. PST, and the game will be televised locally on Spectrum SportsNet.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.