Size. Does. Matter.
by Graham Flashner
They’re beat-up, they’re bored, and they successfully defend a screen-and-roll about once every 20 possessions. Not talking about the Clippers now – this would be the L.A. Lakers, the team no one wants to face in the first round. Least of all the OKC Thunder, the youngest team in the League making the franchise’s first-ever Playoff appearance. But if there was ever a time to face the defending champs as a No. 8 seed, this is it. The Thunder has been on a roll since mid-January, winning 29 of their final 43. The Lakers lost seven of their last 11, many to Playoff opponents. This is set up to be one of the most intriguing of first-round series, because it’s impossible to know which Lakers team will show up.
Depending on your point-of-view, the Lakers have either been on a two-month coast, just waiting to flip the switch come Playoff time, or they’re in big trouble, irreparably damaged by injuries and inconsistent play. Start with Bryant, whose broken right index finger has altered his jumper, while a sore right knee has compromised his elevation. As a result, he can’t shoot over the tops of multiple defenders the way he used to, and his shot percentage has dropped (down to 45 percent; 32 percent from downtown) while his turnovers have risen. Andrew Bynum missed the last 13 games with his annual injury, this time a strained Achilles tendon. He promises to be back for Game 1, but how effective will he be?
Lamar Odom has blown hot and cold; Ron Artest still hasn’t found his place in the offense after 82 games; Sasha Vujacic is out indefinitely with a sprained ankle; Jordan Farmar is playing on a bad ankle; no one’s shown the will to play defense, and Phil Jackson even hinted that his players may have tuned him out. Then again, maybe the Lakers’ slide was not so accidental: they suspiciously blew a game against Portland last Sunday, when Jackson mysteriously designed the last shot (a three-pointer to tie) for Pau Gasol, while Bryant openly laughed courtside.
The Thunder are much less complicated. They have no burden to carry and no expectations to live up to. They like to run and they like to swarm on D.
It’s their youth and speed vs. the Lakers’ experience and size.
REGULAR SEASON RECAP
The Lakers won three of four, but all three wins came early, while the Thunder hovered at .500, still trying to find themselves. A hint of what may be in store came in the fourth game, on March 26, a one-sided rout by the Thunder at OKC, young legs running the Lakers off the court in one of L.A.’s worst losses of the season.
POINT GUARD: DEREK FISHER (7.5/2.1/2.5) VS. RUSSELL WESTBROOK (16.2/4.9/8.0)
UCLA alum Westbrook has been sensational running the offense for scoring king Durant. Fish is a savvy vet with big-game pedigree still living off this shot. He knows how to win, but his shot was down this year (38.1 percent) and defensively, he’s been badly exposed of late by speedy point guards. Aaron Brooks ran circles around Fish last year, and Westbrook should do the same here. Look for Fish to get help from the likes of Shannon Brown, Farmar, and Kobe, but Westbrook should give the Lakers fits.
SHOOTING GUARD: KOBE BRYANT (27.0/5.4/5.0) VS. THABO SEFOLOSHA (5.9/4.8/1.8)
If the Swiss-born Sefolosha can play the kind of defense he did here or in OKC’s win over the Lakers, when he held Bryant to 4-11 shooting and helped force 9 turnovers in a 91-75 blowout, the Thunder will be in excellent shape. Don’t be fooled, however: It’s one thing to contain Bryant for a game; another to do it over a full seven-game series.
Even at 80-90 percent effectiveness, Bryant should take over at some point, and with a two-day rest between Games 4-5 and 5-6, he gets a major assist from the schedule. Sefolosha is not a perimeter threat, and Bryant may well slack off him and look to disrupt OKC’s flow. Either way, the young Thunder haven’t experienced the Playoff fury Bryant can bring, and it should be an eye-opener. That’s assuming Bryant is healthy enough to play through the pain, and not worn down by the increased minutes he was forced to shoulder down the stretch.
SMALL FORWARD: RON ARTEST (11.1/4.3/3.1) VS. KEVIN DURANT (30.1/7.6/2.8)
All of OKC’s hopes rest on Durant. Durant became the first man since Michael Jordan to score at least 25 points in 73 games of an NBA season. He averaged 25.8 vs. the Lakers, and L.A. would gladly take those numbers, given Durant’s NBA-leading 30.1 average. But if Durant becomes unstoppable, look for this series to go the distance.
Of bigger concern to the Lakers is Durant is his league-leading 840 trips to the foul line, which drew the ire of Kevin Garnett and led Phil Jackson to launch his annual psych-ops post-season campaign with the refs. Unfortunately, this strategy may have already backfired, as an offended Durant answered back. Just what L.A. needs – a ticked-off scoring machine who feels he’s got something to prove.
Artest was brought over especially for matchups like these. He’s stronger, but Durant is rangier and quicker. Artest has been slow getting around screens, and if he can’t muscle Durant out of his comfort zone, don’t be surprised if Bryant takes over if and when Artest either gets in foul trouble or is beaten to the rack. Ron Ron had highlight lockdown D games against Joe Johnson and Carmelo Anthony, but hasn’t quite been the automatic stopper L.A. envisioned. He needs to keep a body on Durant at all times, get inside his head, bully him. As long as he can keep Durant from dominating, the Lakers have more than enough firepower to offset Durant’s theatrics.
Offensively, Artest has been out of sorts, a square peg trying to fit into a triangle. Down the stretch, he missed too many open threes off Bryant double-teams. The Lakers don’t depend on him for points, but he’s got to make defenses pay for sagging off him – just like Trevor Ariza did so effectively in last year’s post-season. Artest’s inconsistency exposes a flaw: the Lakers don’t have a reliable three-point shooter they can depend on, which will hurt them in later rounds.
POWER FORWARD: PAU GASOL (18.3/11.2/3.4) VS. JEFF GREEN (15.1/6.0/1.6)
This is where the Lakers hope to dominate. Assuming Bynum is healthy enough to start at center, the Thunder have no answer for the seven-foot Gasol at forward; he’s got a few inches on the 6-9 rookie Green; he works beautifully off Bryant when the two are in sync, and he’s a force around the glass. The athletic Green has great moves and speed to burn, and if he gets out on the open floor, he will cause the Lakers problems – but not nearly as much as Gasol will cause for OKC.
CENTER: ANDREW BYNUM (15.0/8.3/1.0) VS. NENAD KRSTIC (8.4/5.0/0.7)
If Bynum isn’t healthy, Gasol starts at center and Odom will face off against Green, a better matchup for OKC. Assuming Bynum can play, he’s way too big and strong for Krstic, and combined with Gasol, gives the Lakers an imposing middle that will force OKC to spend more time on the perimeter than they might like.
Center is OKC’s biggest glaring weakness, and Bynum should exploit it, though it will likely take him most of the series to find his rhythm. That in itself will make this matchup less one-sided than it appears.
BENCH: Odom, Brown, Farmar, Walton VS. Collison, Ibaka, Harden, Maynor
Neither bench is particularly strong, and if Odom has to start, it’s a blow for L.A. The Thunder will throw Collison and Ibaka, who’s good for some blocked shots and boards, against the Lakers’ bigs. Harden is a three-point weapon off the bench. On the Lakers side, Farmar and Brown bring brash, up-tempo energy, and Walton is a savvy passer who fits smoothly into the triangle, and can even take a defensive stint on Durant.
The Lakers bench has been maligned all year; the younger Thunder play their starters more and don’t necessarily depend as much on their bench the way the older Lakers do. That said, Lakers Playoff experience should rule the day here, especially in hostile road situations.
COACH: PHIL JACKSON VS. SCOTT BROOKS
The young Brooks is a Coach Of the Year candidate who’s done wonders in his first full season. On the other side is a coaching legend with 10 rings. ‘Nuff said.
OKC will test L.A., but the Lakers’ superior size, offensive talent, and vast experience will be too much for the defense-minded Thunder to overcome. OKC’s time hasn’t arrived quite yet, and while I’m quite sure this is not the Lakers’ year to repeat, they’re not going down without a fight, and they’re too proud (and too good) to be one and done.
Lakers in 6.