Mar 5, 2013, 5:53 PM EDT
There was a time not so long ago when the up-and-coming Thunder were measuring their improvement against the Lakers.
Now, it’s the Western Conference champion Thunder that are the measuring stick and the Lakers who want to see where they stand after a run of better play. The two face off Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.
It’s been well documented that after Lakers started the season an unimpressive 17-25 they have started to turn it around and gone 13-5 since. The thing is, it’s not that the Lakers are dramatically better in their last 18 overall — their point differential per 100 possessions +2.5, less than one point per 100 better than it was when they were eight games below .500.
What has changed is they got healthy, and with their key guys got to play together for a stretch modified Mike D’Antoni system, and with all that they started to find there identity. It’s taken a lot of Kobe Bryant — sometimes as scorer, sometimes as facilitator. It’s taken Steve Nash to work a lot off the ball. It’s taken Dwight Howard defending and playing more pick-and-roll. It’s been the role players finding their way.
It’s been the Lakers finally forming an identity like was expected of them in training camp (but injuries and a coaching change to a radically different system delayed that cohesion). Now that they have a sense of self the Lakers are winning the close ones they lost earlier in the season. Such as the 99-98 win over the Hawks on Sunday. John Schuhmann has all the numbers to back this up over at NBA.com — the Lakers with an identity are playing much better in the clutch than they did. They are now a .500 team.
But the Thunder are a whole new level of challenge. They are the measuring stick. They are still the favorites to make the finals out of the West, they have the best scorer in the game in Kevin Durant.
What are the keys for Tuesday night? They all revolve around the Lakers defense, because the Lakers will score some (that Kobe Bryant guy is pretty good) but the question is can they slow the Thunder at all:
1) The Lakers transition defense. Among all their many weaknesses this season, this has been the biggest — if you can run on the Lakers you can beat them. Los Angeles allows teams to shoot 58.1 percent in transition and score 1.16 points per possession, 23rd in the NBA. In the first meeting between these teams this year the Thunder shot 9-of-11 in transition and 3-of-3 from three. If this is an up-tempo game it will not be a close one.
2) Lakers pick-and-roll defense against Westbrook. It’s been improved in recent weeks but in the first meeting the Lakers struggled to stop Russell Westbrook (33 points) on this play. Westbrook has 60 points combined in the first two meetings this season. If Westbrook in particular, but also Kevin Durant and others, are allowed to probe and create off the pick-and-roll the Lakers defense will get picked apart and they will struggle.
On the other hand, when Westbrook went cold — 6-of-22 in the last meeting of these teams — the Lakers got the win. I say went cold because Westbrook completed just 3-of-8 shots inside the restricted area and I’m not sure the Lakers should count on that again. But the Lakers also turned him into a jump shooter and he struggled in that role — Dwight Howard is key here taking away the paint from Westbrook on drives.
3) Can Los Angeles slow Kevin Durant. I know, everyone writes they want to do this and he’s the league’s three-time leading scoring champ for a reason. He dropped 42 on them in a game this season. However, in the last meeting the Lakers had some success with Earl Clark — Durant was 3-of-11 with Clark on him. I’m not sure I’d want to bet on that trend continuing, but you can bet the Lakers go back to that well and if Clark can even just slow Durant and make him work for his baskets it will help.
Oct 25, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT
Lopez hasn’t practiced since it was reported he suffered a soft tissue injury to his surgically repaired foot on Oct. 16.
Oct 25, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT
Warriors hold (almost) all the leverage, because Thompson will be a restricted free agent next summer.
Oct 25, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
Oct 25, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT
Lineup data shows Green greatly improves his team’s chances when playing with the starters.
Oct 25, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
Is Stephenson ready for responsibility that comes with going from Pacers to Hornets?
Oct 25, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
No surprise, and Lakers fans feel the same way.
Oct 25, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT
It might be because short of an insane offer of a max deal, Thompson would rather take his chances as a restricted free agent next summer.
Oct 25, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT
Nice job of McCallum to stay active on a play where he had already missed a shot.
Oct 25, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
Will Thomas make Kings regret choosing Darren Collison over him?
Oct 25, 2014, 12:01 AM EDT
Thunder will be very short-handed the first month of the regular season.
Oct 24, 2014, 11:00 PM EDT
It’s far from guaranteed that they will use it.
Oct 24, 2014, 10:00 PM EDT
And it was probably the smartest possible play
Oct 24, 2014, 9:00 PM EDT
76ers forwent any guaranteed salary to hit free agency sooner
Oct 24, 2014, 8:20 PM EDT
Bucks point guard Nate Wolters makes heads-up play
Oct 24, 2014, 7:31 PM EDT
Can’t say I ever pictured that.
Oct 24, 2014, 6:40 PM EDT
This is a minor trade, even in Sam Hinkie’s world.
Oct 24, 2014, 5:31 PM EDT
Clippers owner affirms reputation
Byron Scott says Lakers may need to trade for point guard. For now, Ronnie Price starts, Jeremy Lin off bench.
Oct 24, 2014, 4:41 PM EDT
Expect the Lakers to try and trade for a point guard… no, not Rajon Rondo.
Oct 24, 2014, 3:50 PM EDT
Nash was everything we want as a fan in an NBA player.
Report: Tobias Harris won’t sign contract extension, would get Nike bonus by playing in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles
Oct 24, 2014, 3:20 PM EDT
Could forward leave the Magic in 2016?
- Report: Klay Thompson’s camp ‘frustrated’ Warriors have yet to offer a max contract extension 2
- Report: Kobe Bryant viewed Dwight Howard leaving Lakers in free agency as ‘a positive’ 30
- Report: Cavaliers have had ‘zero discussion’ on contract extension with Tristan Thompson 13
- Why I am going to miss Steve Nash 26
- Victor Oladipo out indefinitely after taking elbow in practice, suffering facial fracture 13
- ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: New Orleans Pelicans 10
- Five teams poised to make a big leap forward this season 5
- Steve Nash to miss entire 2014-15 season with ongoing back injuries 70