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.
Apr 19, 2015, 8:08 PM EDT
Atlanta won as expected, but will need to play much better to accomplish anything meaningful this postseason.
Apr 19, 2015, 8:00 PM EDT
The Raptors organization was also fined $25,000.
Apr 19, 2015, 5:58 PM EDT
Cleveland opens first round with 113-100 win over Boston
Apr 19, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
Playoff Kyrie is already the best.
Draymond Green on “scrimmage” comments vs. Pelicans: “They just felt the need to try to motivate themselves.”
Apr 19, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
He won’t say who made the comment.
Apr 19, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
It’s as great as you’d expect.
Apr 19, 2015, 12:30 PM EDT
Cleveland is solid, but untested.
Apr 19, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT
Steph being Steph.
Apr 19, 2015, 9:30 AM EDT
He said after the game he felt a pop in his knee. That’s bad.
Apr 19, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT
A little smack talk in advance of Bucks vs. Bulls.
Apr 19, 2015, 12:45 AM EDT
Houston outscores Dallas by 14 in 10 minutes with Howard and Harden, get outscored by four otherwise in 118-108 win
Apr 18, 2015, 11:30 PM EDT
Wade has the ability to hit free agency, but is choosing to stay in Miami for at least one more season.
Apr 18, 2015, 9:59 PM EDT
Rose finished with 23 points.
Apr 18, 2015, 9:00 PM EDT
Leaked images are horrible.
Apr 18, 2015, 7:56 PM EDT
Brooks scored 10 points in his first shift.
Apr 18, 2015, 6:39 PM EDT
Golden State, once up 25, escapes with 106-99 win
Apr 18, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
The basketball was ugly, but this still may be a very competitive series.
Apr 18, 2015, 3:37 PM EDT
Pierce backed up his talk with plenty of action.
Apr 18, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
They’re still expected to play around 32 minutes each.
Apr 18, 2015, 1:18 PM EDT
Ujiri cusses at a playoff pep rally for the second straight year.
- Hawks cruise to underwhelming Game 1 win over Nets 3
- Kyrie Irving aces, Kevin Love passes first playoff test in Cavaliers win over Celtics 15
- James Harden and Dwight Howard show Mavericks what they’re missing in Rockets’ Game 1 win 10
- Derrick Rose looks like his old self as Bulls beat Bucks in Game 1 19
- Warriors strong enough to outlast Anthony Davis and Pelicans in Game 1 7
- Paul Pierce leads Wizards to overtime Game 1 win over Raptors 6
- Q&A: Corey Brewer on trade from Timberwolves, his 51-point game, Harden’s MVP case, Rockets vs. Mavericks 3
- PBT First Round Playoff Previews: Los Angeles Clippers vs. San Antonio Spurs 10