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Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers preview (Game 2 of 82)

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  • When: Thursday, 30 October 2014 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

The Oklahoma City Thunder played great for the first 40 minutes of the night against Portland. Russell Westbrook was going all SuperNova on the Trailblazers, Lance Thomas (LANCE THOMAS!) was doing his best Kenneth Faried impression, and the defense was clamping down on the Portland shooters. Then the 4th quarter started. The defense lost its discipline, the role players started playing like role players, and Russell Westbrook, who was on the bench to begin the quarter, couldn’t bring the Thunder back with the Portland defense keying in on him. With all the odds that were stacked against the Thunder, this did feel like a bit of a moral victory. A loss was expected, but to have a 2 point lead heading into the 4th quarter, and then completely fall apart, was a bit disappointing. But as the venerable Swizz Beatz would say, “On to the next one.”

The Los Angeles Clippers open up their season in the same place and against the same team where it ended last season. The Thunder defeated the Clippers in 6 games in the 2nd round of last season’s playoffs. In what is quickly becoming a budding rivalry in the league, the Clippers are trying to get to where the Thunder have been. The teams split their regular season meetings last year, with each team winning one game on the other’s court.

The Opponent

griffin barnes jordan paul redick clippers

The Clippers finished last season 57-25, good for 3rd in the Western Conference. They defeated the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs as the series went the distance. They then lost to the Thunder in 6 games in the second round. The Clippers had the highest offensive rating in the league last season (112.1), and bring back most of the core from the previous year. Leading the charge is one of the best players in the league, Chris Paul. He led the league in assists per game (10.7) and steals per game (2.5). Joining Paul in the backcourt is sharp shooter JJ Redick who shot nearly 40% from 3-point territory last season. Up front, MVP candidate Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan continue to cause havoc with their athleticism and size. The Clippers sport one of the better benches in the league, which features 2-time 6th Man of the Year award winner Jamal Crawford, Jordan Farmar, and stretch center Spencer Hawes.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Los Angeles Clippers

  • PG – Chris Paul
  • SG – JJ Redick
  • SF – Matt Barnes
  • PF – Blake Griffin
  • C – DeAndre Jordan

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Perry Jones
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Defense – Much like the Portland game, one of the keys to holding a high scoring offense in check is guarding the 3-point line. The Thunder did a good job of that for 3 quarters, but got undisciplined in the 4th quarter and paid a costly price. The Clippers have 6 players who shot at least 34% from deep last season. The perimeter defenders (especially Andre Roberson and Perry Jones) need to do a better job of staying with the shooters and not following the ball so much.

2. A little help – I don’t know if he is out of shape, hurt, or trying to do too much, but Ibaka did not look like himself last night. He was pump-faking and trying to create, which led to his team high 5 turnovers. He was hesitating on his outside shot, which is unlike him, and shot only 4/11. He may just be out of sync due to missing most of training camp. Hopefully, its something he can work through and correct as soon as possible. Perry Jones, after two great preseason games, looked very lost out there in the starting line-up. He shot 1-9 from the field and was spun around a couple times on the defensive end. Roberson was okay, but the Thunder may still need more from him, even if its as a slasher. You know the team is struggling a bit when Lance Thomas is the 2nd leading scorer on the team with 14 points. Westbrook will need more help this game. Speaking of Westbrook…

Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers

3. Paul vs. Westbrook – Are there any more contenders for best point guard in the game? Maybe a healthy Derrick Rose, but for the most part, I think not. Last season’s dual was won by Westbrook in dominating fashion. Round 2 will likely be as entertaining.

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Five Thoughts from the Clippers Series

durant griffin thunder clippers

With a 104-98 win in Game 6 of their 2nd round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the 3rd time in four years. Before we look ahead to the San Antonio Spurs, here are 5 thoughts from the electrifying series that was.

1. Point Guard Supremacy

If there was a match-up that was going to determine how this series would play out, it was definitely this one. Chris Paul is widely considered to be the best point guard in the league, while Russell Westbrook is its most polarizing. One is a maestro, leading a meticulous concerto of dunks, alley-oops, and 3-point shots, while the other is the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil incarnate. The match-up basically came down to this: Would Paul be able to control Westbrook’s game. Defending Chris Paul means defending everyone on the floor. Yes, you have to stay in front of him. But it’s when the opponent strays away from one of the other players on the Clippers that Paul does his most damage.

westbrook paul thunder clippers

On the flip side, defending Westbrook is a completely different story. Due to the chaos he causes, a defender never knows how they are going to defend him. The best approach is to lay off of him, but even that has proven to be difficult as Westbrook will look for any opportunity to run in transition and is usually the quickest man on the floor. Add to that the fact that he’s had a couple games of double digit assists while scoring at least 20 points in the playoffs, and you are looking at a monster.

The numbers in the series basically cancel each other out:

  • Westbrook – 27.8 points / 6.0 rebounds / 8.8 assists / 1.8 steals on 49/35/88 shooting splits
  • Paul – 22.5 points / 3.7 rebounds / 12.0 assists / 2.5 steals on 51/46/75 shooting splits

While Paul assisted more and scored more efficiently, Westbrook scored more and grabbed more boards (over 2 offensive boards per game). The difference between the two floor general lied in the chaos they caused. More, specifically, in the free throw attempted. While Paul mainly settled for jump shots, Westbrook consistently challenged the defense by getting into the paint and looking for his own shot. Some may say that’s the staple of a scoring wing, not a prime time point guard. But with the way the rules favor dribble penetration, it may be time to stop looking at point guards as just facilitator and more as attackers. While I think Paul is still the best pure point guard in the game, Westbrook did a lot in this series in changing the way people think of the point guard position.

2. The Emergence of Steven Adams

When the Thunder made Adams the 12th pick in last season’s draft, many people envisioned a season of trips on I-44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Adams was expected to be a project that would not pay dividends until, at the earliest, next season. But, as they say, that is why they play the game. Adams started the season as the Thunder’s back-up center and never wavered. He even started 20 games when Kendrick Perkins went out with a groin injury in the 2nd half of the season.

Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, in his infinite quest for veteran intangibles, barely played Adams in the first 5 games of the postseason. After averaging 14.8 minutes per game in the regular season, Adams was only notching 4 minutes a night (and 1 DNP-CD) against, of all teams, the Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol-led Memphis Grizzlies, in those first 5 games. With their backs against the wall and trailing 3-2 in their first round series, Brooks relented against his default settings, and played the rookie significant minutes (22.5/game) in the next two games (both wins).

A look at Adams’ numbers don’t explain his impact. Since Game 5 of the first round, Adams has averaged 21.8 minutes, 5 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. But it’s his combination of physicality and athleticism that has the most effect on the game. Usually, teams can do a lot of their damage in the paint when the starting big men are on the bench. In fact, James Harden made a living off of this when he played for the Thunder. Harden would come into the game and immediately begin attacking the other team’s back-up big. With Adams in the game, though, the other team has difficulty in scoring inside.

In the Clippers series, Adams was tasked with guarding all of the LA’s big men (Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Glen Davis). Surprisingly, Adams probably struggled the most with Davis. Griffin wanted no part of backing down Adams in the post and settled for mid-range jumpers. And Jordan struggles with anything not resembling a lob pass. It’s almost as if Adams is a combination of Serge Ibaka and Perkins. Someone with the athleticism of Ibaka, but with the brute strength of Perkins. The only thing missing is the experience, which Adams is gathering in heaps this postseason.

3. Resiliency

durant westbrook jackson thunder

They say great teams win the close games. But, damn, does every game have to be an ESPN Instant Classic? After the “cardiology office visit inducing” series that was the Memphis series, my health didn’t need this series, especially games 4-6. But, that the Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals speaks to the resiliency of this team.

There’s a comfort level that’s achieved when the core of a team has been together for a number of seasons. That’s what you see with the Thunder in late game situations. Everybody knows their roles and plays them to a T. Now, why they can’t do that in the first 45 minutes of a game? I have no idea. Being that they are still a young team, they probably play the game in a fashion similar to the thought process high school/college students have towards homework. When a student is given an assignment with a due date two weeks from then, 75% of those students will wait until the night before to start working on their assignment. That’s the Thunder in a nut shell right there.

4. Defense definitely wins playoff series (and championships too)

During the regular season, the Clippers averaged a league high 107.9 points per game. They upped the ante during the Golden State series, increasing their average by 3 points to 110.9 points per game. For the Thunder series, the Clippers averaged a paltry 106.3 points per game. Seriously though, that 1.5 point drop (and 4.6 point drop from the Warriors series) may have been the difference between the Thunder winning Games 5 and 6.

The Thunder did a great job defending Griffin and Jordan on the inside in the series. After posting up 12.1 points and 15.1 rebounds per game in the Warriors series, the Thunder limited Jordan to 6.7 points and 9.5 rebounds. Griffin’s points and rebounds went up slightly in the Thunder series, but his efficiency went down.

ibaka adams griffin thunder clippers

With the inside locked down, the only other options for the Clippers were Paul’s penetrations and their plethora of 3-point shooters. The Thunder did a great job of going under the screens and negating the driving lanes for Paul. With Paul not getting into the lane as much, the perimeter defenders were able to stay on the shooters for an extra bit longer. The trio of Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, and JJ Redick averaged 0.6 less 3-point FGs made in the Thunder series, and Crawford saw his 3-point percentage drop 8.4 percentage points from the Warriors series. All these factors combined made it difficult for the Clippers to do what they did best; which was to score at will.
5. Coming through in the clutch

Many people will look at this postseason run and wonder whether Westbrook had a better postseason than Durant. The numbers suggest this is a very distinct possibility. All things being equal in the Memphis series (when Durant played bad, so did Westbrook, and visa versa), Westbrook has surprisingly been more efficient in the Clippers’ series. But in terms of making the necessary MVP-like plays in the final 3 minutes of games, Durant is still the man. In Games 4-6, in the final 3 minutes of play, Durant scored 16 points on 4-7 shooting (1-1 from long range), 7-8 FT, and only had 1 turnover. Conversly, Westbrook scored 11 points on 2-7 shooting and 7-7 from the line.

The mark of an MVP is not necessarily their stats throughout the game, but how they pull through in the clutch. Durant has proven time and time again that no matter how the first 40 minutes of the game play out, he’s usually there in the final few minutes when the team needs him the most.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Clippers Round 2 series preview

ibaka griffin thunder clippers

Whew! That was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. The Memphis Grizzlies had the Oklahoma City Thunder on the brink of elimination with a 3-2 series lead and heading back to Memphis. Fortunately, the “Lost” ad for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s shooting stroke worked and they found their offense in time to put together two great games and advance to the 2nd round.

Just like in the first round, the finger prints of fate, are strewn all over this series.  Even though we’ve never faced the Clippers in the playoffs, the inevitability of this series happening has been building for the past 2-3 seasons now. Not only have the Clippers entered into the conversation as one of the contenders in the Western Conference, but their main players have an interwoven history with Oklahoma City that does not involve the Thunder. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are about the closest thing to basketball Prodigal Sons that Oklahoma City has. Now, those two players are in the way of the Thunder advancing to the Western Conference Finals.

Regular Season Series

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The Thunder and Clippers split their season series 2-2, with each team winning one on their respective home courts and losing one on their respective home courts. In the first meeting, the Thunder were cruising in the 2nd quarter, before a scuffle in the 2nd quarter between Serge Ibaka and Matt Barnes led to the ejection of both players. With Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins (who was out due to the death of his grandfather) out of the game, the Thunder’s 9-point halftime lead eventually evaporated in the 3rd quarter under a rain of shots in the paint from the Clippers. The Thunder went on to lose that game 103-111. The second meeting was one of those games where the Thunder came out hot and never relented, winning 105-91, going away. The third game occurred when the Thunder were in their transition period of working Russell Westbrook back into the line-up after the All-Star break. They ended up losing that one 117-125. In the final meeting of the season, the Clippers were without 6th Man of the Year Jamal Crawford and lost 107-101.

Series Schedule

  • Game 1 – Monday, 05 May 2014 at 8:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 2 – Wednesday, 07 May 2014 at 8:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 3 – Friday, 09 May 2014 at 9:30 PM CST (Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA)
  • Game 4 – Sunday, 11 May 2014 at 2:30 PM CST (Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA)
  • Game 5 – Tuesday, 13 May 2014 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
  • Game 6 – Thursday, 15 May 2014 TBD (Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA)*
  • Game 7 – Sunday, 18 May 2014 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*

* If necessary

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Los Angeles Clippers

  • PG – Chris Paul
  • SG – JJ Redick
  • SF – Matt Barnes
  • PF – Blake Griffin
  • C – DeAndre Jordan

 

  • Bench Depth – Jamal Crawford, Glen Davis, Darren Collison, Danny Granger

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

 

  • Bench Depth – Reggie Jackson, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Series

1. Perimeter Defense – The Memphis series and this series could not be anymore different. While the Grizzlies were all about pounding the ball inside, the Clippers are more about getting dribble penetration to suck in the defense and then finding open shooters on the outside. With Chris Paul attacking the basket, JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Matt Barnes will all be camped out on the 3-point line ready to shoot. This is where Thabo Sefolosha may be key in this series. While he may not start, he could provide valuable defense on either Chris Paul or Jamal Crawford in spots.

durant crawford thunder clippers

2. Rebounding – DeAndre Jordan has turned into a rebounding fool in these playoffs, averaging 15.1 boards per game in the Golden State series. With Blake Griffin contributing 6.3 rebounds of his own in that series, the front line for the Clippers did not let many missed shots get by them. Also of note, though, is that Golden State played the series with a front line consisting of David Lee, Draymond Green, and a hobbled Jermaine O’Neal. If the Thunder can control the boards, that should aid them in getting their transition game going.

3. Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson – With Chris Paul a bit hobbled, I see no wing defender on the Clippers that can stop either of the Thunder trio. Crawford and Reddick aren’t known for their defense, Collison is too small, and, if they dust off Jared Dudley, he’s too slow. The Clippers only real line of defense is Jordan, and that only occurs once the players has beat all the other lines of defense.

X-factors

For Los Angeles – Chris Paul’s health. If Paul is as hobbled as he seems, this may be an extremely difficult series for him. Russell Westbrook is a completely different animal than Steph Curry. While Curry is more perimeter-oriented, Westbrook is all out attack. And, unfortunately for the Clippers, they have no one else defensively that can stay with Westbrook and give Paul a reprieve on that side of the ball.

perkins griffin thunder clippers

For Oklahoma City – Foul Trouble. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul’s mastery of theatrics (aka flopping) can quickly put the Clippers in the bonus and also get key players out of the game because of foul trouble. It’ll be very important for the Thunder stay disciplined, not only defensively, but also emotionally.

Prediction

Thunder in 6.

The Thunder got their wake up call in Round 1. They know they nearly blew their opportunity to contend for this season. I don’t see them reverting back to the Thunder we saw in Games 2-5 of the first round. They know, offensively, they can probably get what ever they want. And defensively, they know what they have to do to beat the Clippers.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Clippers preview (Game 78 of 82)

ibaka griffin durant dudley sefolosha paul clippers thunder

  • When: Wednesday, 09 April 2014 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

For the first time in nearly 2 months, the Oklahoma City Thunder could trot out a completely healthy roster. Now, the words “completely healthy” can be debated as Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins are still working their ways back from injury. But the fact still remains that this will be the first time since February 20th, that the Thunder will have the ability to put out the same starting line-up that we’ve all grown accustomed to in the last 3.5 seasons.

Since February 20th, the Thunder have suffered from bouts of inconsistency and complacency, especially on the defensive end. With their two defensive stalwarts out and Russell Westbrook being held out in one of the two games on back to backs, the Thunder have had a difficulty time carving out any sort of rhythm. But now, hopefully, the Thunder are getting healthy when they need it the most.

This will be the fourth and final meeting of the year between these two teams. The Clippers lead the season series 2-1 and are 1.5 games behind the Thunder for 2nd place in the Western Conference.

The Opponent

griffin jordan crawford paul clippers

The Clippers are currently sit at 55-23. They are an offensive juggernaut, averaging 107.8 points per game, which is No. 1 in the league. Their attack is led by PG Chris Paul, who in his 9th season, leads the league in assists (10.8) and steals (2.5) per game, while also averaging 19 points. Blake Griffin has taken that next step and is now a bonafide MVP candidate. His game has become more diverse (better mid-range shooter, better play-making skills) and his free-throw shooting has improved. When defenses converge on either of these two players, they have a cornucopia of shooters around them to make the defense pay. Jamal Crawford, JJ Redick, Darren Collison, Matt Barnes, Danny Granger, Willie Green, and Jared Dudley are all shooting over 34% from 3-point territory. On the inside, DeAndre Jordan has been a defensive monster, averaging 13.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Los Angeles Clippers

  • PG – Chris Paul
  • SG – JJ Redick
  • SF – Matt Barnes
  • PF – Blake Griffin
  • C – DeAndre Jordan

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

* It’s been a while since I wrote that starting line-up down.

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Defense – As mentioned in the “The Opponent” section, the Clippers have 8 players that shoot over 34.1% from the arc. Luckily, Crawford and Granger, appear to be out for the rest of the regular season. In the last game these two teams played, Crawford and Barnes torched the Thunder for 60 points on 11-18 shooting from 3-point land. With a full compliment of players, look for the Thunder to stay more on the shooters and hope that whoever is guarding Paul (be it Westbrook, Sefolosha, or Reggie Jackson) can stay in front of him most of the night.

westbrook paul thunder clippers

2. Attack – Of the top five teams in the league (San Antonio, Miami, LAC, OKC, and Indiana), the Clippers are the worst defensively. They allow 100.7 points per game (14th in the league) and struggle defending the paint when Jordan is not in the game. While head coach Doc Rivers has made the team better defensively, they were still average, at best, to begin with.

3. Playoff Atmosphere – You smell that? It sure does smell like the playoffs. I have a feeling this game will be completely primed. I put the O/U on technicals being called at 5…..and I’m taking the over. This will probably be the last big game of the season for each team. With so much riding on it, I expect nothing less than a playoff atmosphere-type environment. April 19th cannot get here soon enough.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers preview (Game 7 of 82)

paul griffin jackson collison clippers thunder

  • When – Wednesday, 13 November 2013 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where – Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

Finally! The first prime-time match-up of the year for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sure, they’ve faced the Dallas Mavericks and the Minnesota Timberwolves, but this is the type of game that the national media salivates for. A game in November that, in actuality, has little to no meaning, but who’s hype rivals that of a match-up in May. Two teams many media pundits have picked as possibly coming out of the loaded Western Conference.

The Thunder come into the game having won 4 in a row after starting the season 1-1. They are starting to fall in line offensively, with Russell Westbrook working his way back into game shape and Kevin Durant leading the league in scoring (30.2 ppg). The bench, one of the many question marks coming into the season, appears to be one of the strengths of the team. But, 3-point shooting is still a huge concern for the team, as they are only shooting 27% from deep, good for 28th in the league.

This is the first of four meetings between the Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers. The Thunder swept the season series last season, with one game going into overtime and the Thunder winning another one by 4 points. Stylistically, these teams are very transition oriented, which usually leads to high scoring affairs.

The Opponent

paul crawford jordan griffin clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers come into tonight’s game with a 5-3 record. After losing to their Staples Center brethren on opening night, the Clippers have won 5 of 7, with their two losses coming on a road trip through Florida (Miami and Orlando). The Clippers’ offense is the best in the league, in terms of points scored per game, at 109.9. But that figured is negated by the fact that they allowed the 28th most points in the league at 106.4 points per game. That offense is orchestrated by, arguably, the best pure point guard in the league in Chris Paul, who is averaging a league best 12.4 assists per game, while also notching 21.3 points. The starting lineup is a hyper active mix of athletic big men (Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan), a scoring wing (JJ Redick), and a 3 and D wing (Jared Dudley). The Clippers also boast one of the stronger benches in the league led by Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and Darren Collison, but lack any big man depth. Continue reading Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers preview (Game 7 of 82)

Round 2: Lakers vs. Thunder

Redemption road. First it was the defending champions Dallas Mavericks. Now it’s the Los Angeles Lakers. The two teams that have knocked the Oklahoma City Thunder from the playoffs the last two postseasons. The two teams that have gone on to win the championship after they dispatched the Thunder. Oklahoma City did what they had to do in the first round, sweeping the Mavericks in a hard fought first round battle. Now, after a week of rest, they await the Lakers who defeated the Denver Nuggets in a surprising 7 game first round series.

If you want to know what this series will be like, go to your local city gym and observe the basketball court for about 3 hours. You’ll usually find at least one game pitting teenagers (ages 16-22) versus middle aged men (ages 35+). You’ll see the teenagers try to use their athleticism, but the middle aged guys will usually counter with smart basketball and mid-range jumpers. The game usually ends up being close and competitive. The Lakers, of course, are the middle aged guys and the Thunder are the teenagers.

The Thunder won the season series 2-1 in what has turned out to be one of the most contested matchups during the regular season. In the first matchup, in Oklahoma City, the Thunder turned a tight game in the first half into a blowout in the second half, taking the game 100-85. Kevin Durant had one of his better all-around games scoring 33 points on 12/22 shooting, grabbing 4 boards, and dishing out 6 assists. In the second meeting, in Los Angeles, the Lakers held a big lead in the first quarter, but got outscored 84-63 the rest of the way, losing 102-93. Russell Westbrook led the way this time around with 36 points and 5 assists. The 3rd game, also in Los Angeles, was known more for a body part than for a game. Aside from the whole ‘Metta World Peace’s elbow to the side of James Harden’s head’ incident, this was actually a really close game and the Lakers needed overtime to defeat the Thunder 114-106. The real story in this game was the Thunder’s inability to get going offensively in the second half once Harden was sidelined with the concussion.

The Opponent

The Los Angeles Lakers come into the game having won a hard fought 7 game series against the up-start Denver Nuggets. Six of the seven games were played without Metta World Peace, who was serving his 7 game suspension following the elbowing incident against the Thunder. Everyone knows the engine that still pushes the Lakers is Kobe Bryant, who averaged 29 points per game in their 1st round series. Most importantly though, Bryant called out his teammates for their lackadaisical effort following their performance in Game 6. The two teammates he was probably referring to the most after Game 6 were Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who both were very inconsistent in the Denver series, interspersing great games with horrible games. Ramon Sessions had an average series in his first tryst into the playoffs, perhaps showing the signs of someone who hasn’t consistently started in the league. The bench, which  has been shortened to three players, is probably the weakest one left in the playoffs. Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Jordan Hill all have the ability to provide good minutes, but due to the short bench, can be overused and therefore rendered less effective.

Keys to the series:

1)      How healthy is Kendrick Perkins? The Thunder have said all the right things regarding Perkins’ condition. But sometimes, with a muscle like those around the hips, its takes longer for them to heal completely. It’s one of those muscles that you don’t think about at all unless it gets hurt. With the amount of lateral movement involved in basketball, one can only hope that the hip strain is completely healed and doesn’t rear its ugly head anymore in the playoffs. Look for plenty of pick and rolls involving Andrew Bynum early in Game 1.

2)      Who guards Russell Westbrook? The Lakers got their Kevin Durant defender back in Metta World Peace. But their biggest issue has always been defending Russell Westbrook. Put a slower guard on Westbrook, and he blows right by them and does his damage in the paint. Put a smaller guard on him, and he’ll post them up. Look for Ramon Sessions to start the game guarding Westbrook. But as was seen in the Denver series, quick guards can get by Sessions pretty consistently. Look for the Lakers to regularly deploy hedge defenders towards Westbrook, especially the player guarding Sefolosha. Or look for Bryant to take on the task of guarding Westbrook himself.

3)      Remember that Metta World Peace is the Lakers’ 4th best player, at best. A lot will be made about World Peace’s first game in OKC since “The Elbow”. But the focus of the game needn’t not be on the man formally known as Ron Artest. World Peace will be on his “best” behavior and will not do anything to jeopardize the Lakers’ chances. Will he push, grab, annoy, and attempt to intimidate? Does the sun rise in the East? Of course he will do all that. But the Thunder need not involve themselves in revenge plots and try to take cheap shots at World Peace. What MWP is doing in the media is classic instigation techniques. Hopefully the Thunder players don’t take the bait.

4)      How will the extended rest affect the Thunder? In the 9 days since the Thunder last played, France elected a new president, another underwear bombing plot was foiled, Portugal got rid of four holidays due to cost cutting measures, new data leads scientists to believe that the Maya really didn’t think the world would end in 2012, and President Barack Obama supported gay marriage. That’s a very long time to not be playing any type of competitive basketball. You can practice all you want, but you’ll never be able to replicate the intensity of a real game against a real opponent. The Thunder had a 3 day rest between the first and second round last year, and looked completely flat in the first game of their second round matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies. A rest this long is completely new territory for the young Thunder and may be a factor early in the series.

5)      Which Lakers team shows up? The Lakers will be all-in in this series. It’s Kobe’s nature to be completely tuned-in to every game he plays, whether it’s a pre-season game against the Washington Wizards or a Finals game against the Boston Celtics. It’s Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol that can sometimes suffer from bouts of Adult OnSet Attention Deficit Disorder (AOADD). Against the Nuggets, both these players shut it down in Games 5 and 6, thinking that the will of the Nuggets would wilt and they would have an easy road to the second round. But in this series, both these players know what’s at stake and will be fully focused. Metta World Peace won’t be the MWP of earlier this season. He’ll be playing like Ron Artest from Queensbridge. And that could be a game-changer. The wild card for the Lakers may be Ramon Sessions. If for any reason he shrinks in the pressure of the playoffs, the Lakers may be in trouble.

Conclusion:

This series will be a hard fought battle in which home court advantage will win out. Thunder in 7.