The Los Angeles Lakers will begin their Western Conference Semifinals series in the unfamiliar role of the underdog against the young, talented Oklahoma City Thunder and there are numerous analysts and fans who feel the title is justified.
The Thunder won two out of three games against the Lakers during the regular season, and Los Angeles needed two overtimes in order to secure its lone victory at home.
However, none of that means the Lakers face hopeless odds when they begin their series with the Thunder on Monday night.
Oklahoma City may be favored, but it's not impossible to imagine the Lakers stealing the series if they can turn the games into a contrast of styles and utilize their X-factor, who just happens to be one of the best closers in the game.
Most people will never consider a player like Lakers star Kobe Bryant to be an X-factor since that role is usually reserved for someone of lesser acclaim, but in a series where the strengths of each team are so clearly defined, he may fit the description.
The Thunder would prefer to push the tempo of the series to hyper-speed and if they succeed, they will run the bigger, slower Lakers off the court and out of the postseason. But if the bigger, slower Lakers can maximize what may be the biggest advantage of any playoff team then things might take a different turn.
Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are arguably bigger and more talented than any other players at their position remaining in the postseason, and if they can capitalize on that advantage then they can make life much easier for themselves and Bryant.
If the Lakers can neutralize the speed and quickness of Kevin Durant, Russel Westbrook and James Harden with the size and strength of Bynum and Gasol then each teams' greatest strength could cancel the others' out.
And if the teams can play on even terms under that scenario, Bryant could be the Lakers' biggest X-factor entering the series.
Of course, there are other variables that could come into play under my theory, and the ability of Gasol and Bynum to play with consistent poise, purpose and passion is the most glaring.
The series against the Denver Nuggets proved that just because the Lakers big men should dominate doesn't mean they will, and Los Angeles will certainly lose to the Thunder if Gasol and Bynum fail to find a level of consistency.
The Thunder's primary post players, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, are not bigger than the Nuggets' frontline, but they might be tougher and they will likely begin the series by attempting to take Bynum and Gasol out of their comfort zones.
Both Bynum and Gasol have shown that when they combine their size and talent with the proper focus there is little that any opponent can do to prevent them from making the paint their personal playground.
And if the Lakers can get their post game clicking, it will inevitably make life easier for Bryant on the perimeter.
How well Bynum and Gasol respond to what is sure to be a full-frontal physical assault from the Thunder will determine if the Lakers can extend the young Thunder deep into this series. If each can play as well on a consistent basis as they did in Game 7 against the Nuggets, maybe Bryant can finish them off.
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