Facing the Thunder
The Lakers still have plenty of questions heading into the playoffs
After 82 games it comes down to this.
Either the start to a glorious road to repeat or the start to a disappointing spring that will leave the Los Angeles Lakers "Gone Fishin'" (or more accurately with this team, "Gone Reality TV Filmin'") far earlier than they had planned.
The first team that will test the direction the Lakers' destiny takes them this postseason is the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Lakers played the Thunder three times in the first two months of the season -- a three-point overtime win on Nov. 3, a 16-point win on Nov. 22 and a three-point win on Dec. 22 -- and based on those results, the upcoming first-round playoff matchup between the No. 1-seeded Lakers and No. 8 Thunder seems like an appropriately seeded series.
But if you examine the four months that followed for both teams, the gap has closed considerably.
The win on Dec. 22 lifted the Lakers' record to 23-4 and dropped the Thunder to 13-14. Since then, Los Angeles finished the season 34-21, while Oklahoma City finished 37-18, including a 16-point win against L.A. on March 26.
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Of course there's another realm of numbers that sway heavily in the Lakers' favor:
The entire Oklahoma City starting lineup has just 24 playoff career playoff games under its belt (Thabo Sefolosha played nine with the Bulls and Nenad Krstic played 15 with the Nets) and its coach, Scott Brooks, has yet to draw up a play as the head man in late April.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, played 23 playoff games as a team just last season in its run to the championship; its starting backcourt of Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant have four rings apiece; and its coach, Phil Jackson, has a record 10 titles.
Jackson has won just about every type of playoff series there is -- including against young, upstart teams like the Thunder -- and he remembers the formula:
"Win as quickly as possible," the Lakers coach said. "Apply the pressure and take advantage of the non-growth and inexperience that they may exhibit."
It's a simple plan, for sure, but not so easy to execute. Especially if you consider these five factors that could determine the outcome of the series:
Durant is one of the truly dominant offensive players in the game today, using his rangy 6-foot-9, 230-pound frame and silky-smooth shooting stroke to lead the league in scoring with 30.1 points per game in just his third season in the league. Artest, a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year, used to be one of the truly dominant defensive forces in the league, but hasn't shown it consistently in his 10th season (and first with the Lakers). Who gets the better of whom? Artest showed flashes of his old self in a stretch in late February, when he threw Paul Pierce, Danny Granger, Andre Iguodala, Shawn Marion and Carmelo Anthony "in a straitjacket," as Kobe Bryant put it. Artest would not comment on the specific defensive assignment, saying, "I just want to play hard and give 100 percent." The problem is, Durant's 100 percent might be worth a little bit more than Artest's 100 percent these days.
2. How much will injuries limit the Lakers?
It was a fun story for the first couple of months of the season, when Bryant was playing through elbow, back, knee, finger, groin and ankle ailments and still hitting game winners, but now there's no joy in recounting the tales of old scars for the Lakers, because many still haven't healed. Bryant missed four of the Lakers' final five regular-season games to rest his legs and alleviate swelling in his right knee and discomfort in his fractured right index finger. Andrew Bynum missed the Lakers' last 13 games with a strained left Achilles tendon. Sasha Vujacic could miss the entire first round with a severe left ankle sprain, and Luke Walton (back) and Jordan Farmar (left hamstring) are not at full strength heading into the series. All the postseason experience in the world can't magically heal the wounds the Lakers are dealing with right now. If Bryant can return as the player he's known to be, he can disguise a lot of those issues. If Bryant returns and plays like he did in his past three games, when he shot a combined 21-for-70 (30 percent), the Lakers will be in some trouble.
3. Which is the bigger advantage, the Lakers' size or the Thunder's speed?
The one good thing the Lakers have going for them right now is Pau Gasol. Gasol -- whom Jackson described as the Lakers' MVP over the last 30 games of the season -- has been even better in their final six games, averaging 26.5 points and 12.0 rebounds over that stretch. Add in a healthy Bynum, and the Lakers should have an imposing advantage in the middle over the Thunder's 6-9 power forward Jeff Green and the content-to-shoot-outside Nenad Krstic. However, Green, along with Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Russell Westbrook, Eric Maynor and James Harden, give Oklahoma City a core of quick, skilled players that can force turnovers on defense and convert them into easily convertible fast-break opportunities.
4. Will the Lakers' bench come through?
Injuries to the starting lineup caused bench players like Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown to plug into the first five often this season, leaving the Lakers' reserves without two of their key pieces. Injuries to the remaining bench players depleted that pool even more. Los Angeles' second unit has been second-rate all year long, and now it goes up against a group that has steady contributors in Harden and Maynor in the backcourt and Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison in the frontcourt. Even if L.A. can get past Oklahoma City without any bench contribution, the stress it will put on its starters won't bode well for a long playoff run.
5. Is Russell Westbrook ready for prime time?
Quick guards have run roughshod over the Lakers in the past. Anybody remember Rajon Rondo in the 2008 Finals or Aaron Brooks in the 2009 playoffs? Westbrook will get his chance to audition for that same role. Westbrook came up huge in the Thunder's March win against the Lakers (23 points on 10-for-13 shooting and six assists) but he stumbled down the stretch, shooting just 39.4 percent in April. Add the extra pressure of returning to his hometown (he was born in Long Beach and attended UCLA), and there's a chance the 21-year-old will continue to melt down as the spotlight becomes more intense.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.