Los Angeles Lakers Face Huge Test Tonight in Oklahoma City

Kwame Fisher-JonesContributor IIIFebruary 23, 2012

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 10: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers controls the ball against Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder on February 10, 2009 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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With the All-Star break fast approaching, we will now get a gander at who the real championship contenders and pretenders are.

Just like in high school right before the winter and summer vacations, the good students kept their focus until school was officially out, while the slackers mentally were already gone.

Last night, of the 13 games on the NBA slate, seven ended with double-digit victories. Needless to say, the slackers have already checked out. However, the A students/contenders are fully focused, and the Lakers face one of those students tonight in Oklahoma City.

The Thunder are flying up and down the court right now, and their youthful exuberance is tough to combat for most teams, but for the Lakers it could be downright insurmountable.

Less than 24 hours ago, the Thunder were toying with the over-the-hill crew known as the Boston Celtics. OKC scored 72 points in the first half and took a 23-point halftime lead before the mercy rule kicked in and they let up just a bit to make it interesting. In all, the Thunder won by 15 points and never broke a sweat.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Lakers were involved in a much closer contest that came down to free throws—or better yet, missed free throws. LA gutted out a tough win against the defending champion Dallas Mavericks 96-91 and are now headed to the prairies of Oklahoma “City.”

This game will be a measuring stick for both teams. For the Lakers, it will allow them to gauge where they are against this season’s best and see if they can handle a potential series against these young
stallions. On the Thunder’s side, it will give them a chance to see if they can impose their youthful will against a veteran playoff-tested squad.

It will be a true matchup of offense versus defense, as the Thunder average 103 points per game, which is ranked third in the league. The Lakers only allow 91 points per, which is good for sixth in the league.

Whose spirit will be broken? Going below the surface of numbers, there are the conflicting team personalities. LA would not run on a treadmill, while OKC fast-breaks off of free throws. How will the Lakers slow down OKC? Can OKC be slowed down?

As a team, LA will face those questions, but games in sports have always been won by winning your individual matchups. This brings us to the elephant, or blur, in the room called Russell Westbrook—SoCal’s own Russell Westbrook.

This is where new head coach Mike Brown can announce his presence with authority. Coach Brown and the Lakers have struggled with speedy athletic point guards this season and now face the crème-de-la-crème of them in Westbrook. If LA plans on trotting out trusted greyhound Derek Fisher for
more than 12 minutes tonight, things could get ugly fast.  

OKC’s lead guard went for 31 last night and only shot two three-pointers. His game is about penetration and transition, so if Fisher should find himself on the floor once a Lakers shot goes up, he needs to be in a dead sprint to get back. Brown is well aware of this matchup and needs to gain his team’s confidence by implementing a defense capable of slowing Westbrook down.

On the other sideline, Westbrook has to continue to thrust himself into the upper echelon of players—not just guards—in the Association. If he can notch back-to-back 30-point games against two of the league’s best defensive teams, he would be well on his way.

The Thunder’s bench will need to be huge while the Lakers need their front line to be huge. James Harden and Co. will face little resistance from Matt Barnes and the sporadic Steve Blake and should play well.

Not to be outdone, Gasol and Bynum should have their way against Perkins and his scowl, but will need to be physical with Serge Ibaka. The slender forward is a much better weak-side defender than on-the-ball defender.

The papers, Internet and SportsCenter will lead you to believe that whichever star plays better (Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant), their team will win. This could not be further from the truth—the stars will play well, but this game will come down to coaching and execution. Whichever team executes better early and which team imposes their philosophy will ultimately decide the winner.

Both teams need this win going into All-Star break. With the Gasol trade rumors and misconception of underachievement, a win against the No. 1 team in the Western Conference on the road after beating Dallas the night before would be a tremendous boost going into the break for Los Angeles.

Oklahoma City needs this game to cement their legitimacy as a true title contender and not just a playoff participant.

This should be a great preview for the second half of the season as teams begin jockeying for playoff positioning. It should also be a great preview to what could be a possible playoff matchup.