The Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City are set to square off in a rematch of the Western Conference semifinals.
Both teams underwent some major cosmetic changes since the two last met, yet each franchise has traveled a very different path in the early goings of the NBA's regular season.
After trading for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, firing Mike Brown and hiring Mike D'Antoni, the Lakers find themselves below .500, struggling to co-exist as a collective.
The Thunder underwent an equally significant upheaval when they shipped James Harden off to the Houston Rockets, receiving Kevin Martin in return. To call Oklahoma City a better team now would be a slight stretch, but they are playing at just a half-game pace behind last year.
Kevin Durant and company also come into this one having won six straight, and will look to make it seven while also perpetuating the roller coaster ride that is the Lakers.
Los Angeles, however, will look to gain the ultimate form of momentum by upsetting the reigning Western Conference champs in their old building.
Almost needless to say, a callous battle is a bout to take place in Oklahoma City.
Time: Friday, December 7, 9:30 p.m. E.T.
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (15-4) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (9-10)
Betting Line: Thunder -7.5
Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
Lakers: Steve Blake (abdomen, out); Pau Gasol (knees, out); Steve Nash (leg, out).
Key Storyline: Are the Lakers actually a legitimate Western Conference powerhouse?
One look at Los Angeles' record and it's clear the Lakers are not getting enough value for the $100 million they are investing in their roster this season. A second look will show you that Los Angeles is 2-5 on the road going up against an Oklahoma City team that is 9-2 at home.
Though this game provides the Lakers with a great opportunity to gain some serious momentum after their thrashing of the New Orleans Hornets, it also gives them a chance add some validity to their cause.
Even without both Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, Los Angeles' roster suggests that the team is better than this, that they're capable of contending for a title.
Thus far, we've taken the Lakers' docket into account, considered them contenders and chalked their struggles up to a Nash-less crusade and chemistry related deficiencies.
But the grace period on the team's not-so-new convocation is running out. The Lakers have yet to prove they can thrive in adversity—like Nash's injury and Gasol's struggles—and are now faced with providing at least a shed of evidence that they are who we believe them to be.
And there's no better way for them to prove just this then by barreling into Oklahoma City and emerging victorious.
Key Matchup: Kobe Bryant, SG, Lakers vs. Thabo Sefolosha, SG, Thunder
Bryant is fresh off becoming the fifth-ever NBA player to eclipse 30,000 points, which leaves Sefolosha's hands full on the defensive end.
Sefolosha isn't mush of a scorer—though he can knock down the deep-ball—but he's a pesky perimeter defender who is often tasked with shutting down even the most elite of scorers.
That said, Kobe isn't just an elite scorer—he's one of the best. He can score from anywhere on the floor and is currently shooting a career-best 49 percent from the floor and 37.2 percent from beyond the arc. He has also scored at least 29 points in each of his last three games.
There's no real strategy to stopping the Black Mamba. He's comfortable taking everything and anything that comes his way. However, keeping him out of the paint is key, which is something Sefolosha is extremely deft at doing.
If the Thunder's defensive specialist can contain Bryant, the Lakers have not proved to have another consistent source of offense, Dwight Howard included. And from there, they could traipse their way to victory.
Yet, especially this season, is slowing down Bryant even possible?
Metta World Peace, SF, Lakers
World Peace will spend much of the night attempting to keep up with Durant who is currently having an MVP-esque season.
Durant is averaging 26.5 points to go along with a career-high in rebounds and assists per game. He's also shooting a career-best 51.4 percent from the field as well.
In other words, World Peace will have his work cut out for him tonight.
While he is one of the league's best defenders, like Bryant, Durant is virtually unstoppable.
World Peace's ability to humanize his offensive play as much as possible will speak volumes in the box score one way or the other.
Kendrick Perkins, C, Thunder
In the interest of full-disclosure, I blame Perkins' contract for Harden's departure. That said, even I cannot attempt to downplay the importance of him in this game.
Defensively, Perkins has proved to be a disappointment. As such we'll likely see a lot of Serge Ibaka on Howard, or at least a lot of Ibaka helping out on Howard.
Perkins' real value in this game, however, will come on the offensive end. Howard will attempt to stifle the efforts of both Perkins and Ibaka with Gasol likely out, but he can't be two places at once. Given the choice, he'll always opt to favor Ibaka, who is having a career year.
Which should leave Perkins free to exploit Antawn Jamison or the noticeably smaller Jordan Hill on plenty of occasions.
If he can shine well above the 5.2 points per game he's currently averaging, the Thunder will have little to worry about in this one.
Antawn Jamison, PF, Lakers
Speaking of the stretch forward, Jamison will be of the utmost importance to the Lakers' cause against the Thunder.
Though he fits the bill perfectly for D'Antoni's offensive system, he's a straight up liability on the defensive end.
He'll have to do plenty of damage offensively to offset the beating he'll take against Ibaka and Perkins on the other end of the ball.
Jamison has scored 15 or more points in five of the last seven games for Los Angeles, but he'll likely need to have a 20-plus point performance to not only redeem his defensive shortcomings, but keep the Lakers competitive in general.
Kevin Martin, SG, Thunder
Los Angeles' bench totals just 23.4 points per game, the second-lowest mark in the NBA. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, rattles off 31.2. That's just the 18th-most in the NBA, but it's an advantage nonetheless.
Martin, as has become the norm, must continue to lead the charge off the bench.
With Gasol likely out and Jamison being inserted into the starting lineup, the Lakers don't have a proven leg to stand on off the pine. If Martin can continue his run of 15.6 points per contest on 46.3 percent shooting and a career-best 47.7 percent shooting from downtown, the Thunder will have little trouble putting Los Angeles' reserves to shame.
As well as putting the game out of reach for the Lakers early on.
Prediction: Thunder 109, Lakers 101
Even without Nash and likely Gasol, I don't see the Lakers getting blown out of the water in this one. I also don't see them winning either.
Oklahoma City is on an absolute tear. It has had two days of rest and hasn't lost at home since early November.
The Thunder are also notching off 110.9 points per 100 possessions, tying them with the New York Knicks for the best mark in the league.
Los Angeles, by comparison, boasts the fifth-most efficient offense in the Association at 105.5 points per 100 possessions. But while that bodes well for it as it attempts to go point-for-point, it's also allowing the fifth-most points (43.3) in the paint per game.
Facing the likes of perpetual slashers like Durant and Westbrook, that could become a huge problem. Plus, there's always the Lakers' struggles on the road to consider once again.
Toss in the fact that the boys in purple and gold have yet to win both games of a back-to-back thus far this season and you have the makings of a blowout for the Thunder.
Yet a blowout isn't what Oklahoma City will be treated to; the Lakers are going to put up a fight.
It ultimately just won't be enough.
All stats in this article are accurate as of December 6, 2012.
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