NBA Playoffs: 5 Reasons Why the Lakers Will Beat the Thunder
Nevertheless, the Lakers used all seven games to dispatch Denver and advance into a second round confrontation with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Lakers ran the entire spectrum in Round 1, looking like a legitimate title threat after Andrew Bynum's Game 1 triple-double before appearing as a hapless doormat on its way to an early playoff exit in Games 3 and 6.
Overall, Mike Brown's squad noticeably underachieved in the Denver series to the point that no one has any confidence in their ability to topple Kevin Durant and OKC in Round 2.
After all, the Thunder are cut from the same basketball cloth as the Nuggets are, only with a deeper rotation, two unquestioned superstars (Durant and Russell Westbrook) and two vicious crunch timers (Durant and James Harden).
If the Lakers struggled so mightily to fend off the Nuggets, what hope could they possibly have to send the Thunder home?
Notwithstanding the fact that the Lakers are not hitting on all cylinders at the most crucial point of the year, they still possess marked advantages over OKC that could show up in big ways to give the Lakers more than a puncher's chance to move on to the West Finals.
If the Lakers beat OKC, you'll point to these five factors as the biggest reasons why.
The Lakers Can Defend Kevin Durant
Ron Peace, as I steadfastly refer to him, has the size to disrupt Durant's perimeter flow, as well as the strength to keep him out of the lane.
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Kevin Durant is a total anomaly on a basketball court. We all know this and have seen first hand why its true. No player in recent memory has combined Durant's 6'9" frame (and ungodly 7'5" wingspan) with world-class shooting and perimeter skill.
Even the tallest of perimeter defenders—think Andre Iguodala—are no match for Durant, who can get unhindered shots off simply by shooting over. If you press up on him and try to get physical, he's able to put the ball on the deck and blow by with his dribble.
For whatever reason, Metta World Peace, with his size and considerable physicality, coaxes Durant into some of his lowest offensive efficiency. Durant attempted more shots—26 per game—against the Lakers than against any other opponent this season and posted his third worst shooting percentage, 42.3.
The Lakers have more long forwards to throw at Durant than any remaining team, with Peace, Matt Barnes and even Devin Ebanks at times.
Defending Durant will always be a major headache, but having the personnel to annoy his perimeter game, and maybe tricking him into shooting more, gives the Lakers confidence as they game plan to stop OKC.
The Lakers Haven't Shown Their Best Against OKC This Season
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The Lakers met the Thunder three times in the compressed regular season, dropping the first two and stealing the third in double-OT at home. The Lakers didn't put four good quarters together in any of that trio.
Here are their shooting percentages, turnover margins and rebound margins for those games:
Which set of numbers doesn't belong? If you picked the last set, you were right.
Not coincidentally, the Lakers earned their only positive result when they limited their turnovers and crashed the glass. Though the total is inflated because the game went into double overtime, the Lakers corralled a whopping 25 offensive rebounds in the April 22 win at home, resulting in 56 points in the paint against Ken Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Company.
The numbers from the April 22 game represent a work in progress for the Lakers, not their ideal result. They'd like to shoot better from the field and maximize the turnover discrepancy with the mistake-happy hands of Russ Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
If the Lakers can mimic their rebounding edge and limit the turnovers while pulling that field goal percentage up near 45 percent, they'll likely find themselves in the heat of multiple tight games with the Thunder.
The Lakers Can Exploit the Offensive Glass
Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol can give LA a huge advantage if they apply themselves to get second chances on the offensive glass.
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The Lakers accumulated the NBA's sixth-best offensive rebound rate this season, which was a harbinger of success against the Thunder, as mentioned on the previous slide.
Further, the Thunder are among the league's weakest at limiting extra possessions, finishing 23rd in defensive rebound rate and giving up the second-most offensive rebounds, 12.7, per game.
Add to that weakness the presence of seven-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, and Thunder coach Scott Brooks has something to worry about.
The Thunder's lack of size against the Lakers is well-known, with no regular over 6'10" to offset the Laker towers. It is incumbent upon Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins to maintain discipline on defense by keeping contact with their marks at all times and dedicating themselves to boxing out.
If they don't, Laker possessions could result in a lot of long rebounds and/or kickouts to open shooters after offensive rebounds. With Steve Blake's brimming confidence on the perimeter and the return of Ron Peace (15 points, four three-pointers in Game 7 against Denver), the Lakers have the potential to earn a lot of cheap points to offset the effects of OKC's signature furious scoring runs.
How the war is won on the glass may be the single most important determinant of this series. It could give the Lakers the shot in the arm they need when lethargy sets in and deflate OKC with quick shifts in momentum.
Bynum and Gasol's stamina will surely be tested after a long first round and a series that features four games in its first five days.
The Compressed Series Actually Favors the Lakers
The Lakers met a lot of success when playing three games in four nights.
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Common sense holds that the younger, sprier and more energetic team would fare better with short or no rest between games, while the long-in-the-tooth, brittle squads struggle getting their legs under their jumpers.
However, the former (Oklahoma City), fared surprisingly poorly in situations involving three games in four nights, compiling a pedestrian 58.3 winning percentage.
Surprisingly, the Lakers won three-quarters of their 16 qualifying games, which, by the way, was the second most three-in-four-nights situations in the NBA.
Common sense, in this case, does not seem to prevail.
Games 2, 3 and 4 in this series will fall on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, a crucial set of games that comprises a significant chunk of the series' formative outcomes.
What would commonly be seen as an obstacle to the creaky Lakers could actually be among their strongest allies as they butt heads with their younger opponent.
If the Lakers can snatch two of three games in that stretch, they'll either have a 3-1 advantage or be knotted at two heading into Game 5, at which point, you can throw most stats and trends out the window and put your money on the team with the most heart and clutch shooting.
The Lakers Know Where to Go in Crunch Time, Do the Thunder?
When the Thunder needs a bucket late in a game, will Durant demand the ball?
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Perhaps chief among playoff basketball needs is a scorer of whom a coach can earnestly exclaim, "With this guy, we know we can get a basket any and every time we have to have one."
Analysts and former players and coaches come on TV and tell us that playing defense, rebounding and controlling the pace are the most important metrics for playoff success, but if a team has all those yet lacks a bona-fide, supremely-confident scorer, that team will likely fall short in at least one do-or-die moment in a playoff series.
Take the last five champions as a cross-section.
Dallas didn't play great defense or control pace last year; they just hit a lot of threes and gave the ball to Dirk at the end of games.
L.A. had Kobe for their back-to-back titles, though 6-24 still remains fresh in the memory of most.
The Celtics had three guys who could potentially fit that bill, but one who needed to rise late in games. That was Paul Pierce.
Way back in 2007, Tim Duncan was still the alpha-dog of his Spurs, the undisputed go-to scorer late in games.
Fast forward to the present: The Lakers still have Kobe, who had a pair of vintage Kobe moments down the stretch in the Denver series in which he strapped LA on his back and simply took over without missing shots. Fans are excited by this because they're accustomed to 6-24 Kobe, the one who stubbornly and foolishly forces shots and extends no trust to the other four purple and gold jerseys on the floor.
Basketball fans are more confident (or horrified) in Kobe's closing ability right now than at any time in the past three years, or at least I am. This shouldn't be taken lightly as LA continues to trudge deeper into the playoff forest.
Oklahoma City appears to have solved their late-game scorer problems that reared in last year's Dallas series. In that series, point guard Russell Westbrook decided he was a jump shooter, and being the most aggressive offensive player on that team, he ostensibly shot his team out of the series while Kevin Durant stood on the wing watching.
This year, Durant finished second in the NBA in clutch time scoring per 48 minutes, trailing only Cleveland rookie Kyrie Irving. Westbrook actually shines on that list, accruing a higher shooting percentage than Durant both inside and outside the arc and ranking fourth in the league in clutch scoring.
Durant's assertiveness, grouped with Westbrook's real end-game improvement and James Harden's alpha-dog candidacy, mixes a combustible cocktail. All three will be on the court in every fourth quarter minute that matters in this series, so it is incumbent upon the three of them and Scott Brooks to sort out the scoring pecking order before the Thunder have a repeat of last spring.
It doesn't matter how many unstoppable scorers you have at the end of games because only one guy can score at a time. The fact that OKC has a wealth of options does more to complicate the end-game than it does to simplify and clarify it.
Conversely, the fact that everyone knows Kobe will have the ball in his hands for the Lakers is to their underrated advantage, whether he shoots or draws defenders and passes.