The Los Angeles Lakers are on a five-game losing streak, and it doesn't get any easier for them come their next game. The team is set to face the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Staples Center on January 11, and it will be short-handed against the defending Western Conference champions.
Dwight Howard will miss his third game with a shoulder injury, and Pau Gasol may miss another game as he recovers from a concussion.
This does not bode well for the Lakers, who have struggled to get it right all season long despite landing both Steve Nash and Howard over the summer. Instead of being a top title contender, Los Angeles is fighting just to have a spot in the playoffs.
This can be attributed to both injuries and an early coaching change, not to mention key players struggling, but the fact that the Lakers have indeed performed so badly after revamping their roster is shocking. They have their first true point guard since Nick Van Exel, but cannot build off of last year's success.
Sure enough, the young and talented Thunder are going to be ready to take full advantage of the Lakers' issues, and thus take a 2-0 lead in the season series.
Time: Friday, January 11, 10:30 p.m. EST
TV: ESPN, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, Fox Sports Oklahoma HD
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (27-8) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (15-20)
Betting Line: Oklahoma City (-6), Los Angeles (+6)
Injuries: Dwight Howard (shoulder, out), Jordan Hill (hip, out), Pau Gasol (concussion, day-to-day), Steve Blake (abdomen, out)
Key Storyline: Lakers Look to Break Losing Streak Against Dangerous Thunder
The Lakers need to break their five-game losing streak, but the Thunder provide anything but an easy battle for them. Oklahoma City is younger, faster and has a much higher ceiling than the current Lakers squad. Los Angeles may have the experience and history on its side, but the Thunder have everything of a dynasty in the making.
Both teams actually squared off earlier this season, in Oklahoma City on December 7. Even without Steve Nash running the point, 35 points and seven assists from Kobe Bryant and 23 points and 18 rebounds from Dwight Howard helped Los Angeles keep the game close.
It still was not enough to stop the Thunder. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for 69 points and Oklahoma City shot 53 percent from three-point range for the entire game. By the final buzzer, the Lakers had lost, 114-108.
Playing at the Staples Center will give Los Angeles something of an advantage, as their passionate fans plus Jack Nicholson will give their all in cheering the team on to what would be an excellent upset victory. The sad part is that home-court advantage only does so much, and the Lakers will need a lot more than the crowd's encouragement to break their streak of futility tonight.
Certain chips need to fall into place, and the Los Angeles Lakers must work extra hard against the Oklahoma City Thunder to make sure that they fall a certain way.
Key Storyline: Thabo Sefolosha vs. Kobe Bryant
Thabo Sefolosha may not put up the most amazing numbers, but he is still incredibly valuable to the Thunder. He only averages 7.5 points per game, but his lockdown defense is so good that even some of the best players in the league have a problem getting past it. He averages just over a steal per game, but his commitment to staying on his man is a perfect example of how to play man-to-man defense on the NBA level.
Sefolosha can also be a force from three-point range, having shot 41 percent from beyond the arc this season.
However, the man has one job in this game: frustrate Kobe Bryant.
Per usual, Bryant is having an excellent season. He leads the league with 30.1 points per game, and he has also chipped in 5.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
The story of Bryant's season has been an odd one. He has fully bought into coach Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced, offense-oriented system, but he has not completely grasped the team-first concept of it.
Look at it this way. In games where Bryant registers five or more assists, the Lakers are 12-7. He is a fine playmaking guard, and the fact that a majority of the Lakers' wins have come when he takes that type of approach is telling.
Compare that to games in which Bryant has attempted more than 22 shots per game, his average for the season, and the Lakers' record is not as glorious. In those situations, the Lakers are 5-15.
This is where Sefolosha's approach comes into play. The only circumstance in which Bryant gets very trigger happy is if the Lakers fall behind quickly, and he thus goes into what I have dubbed "Mamba Mode," in which he tries to do absolutely everything to get the Lakers back in the game.
If Sefolosha can get him to do this early and often, then the Thunder will be one giant step closer to winning the game.
On Bryant's end, he must fight past Sefolosha's defense and drive the lane rather than try and create off the dribble and use his jump shot. The key to defeating the Thunder is keeping pace with them, and Bryant going for high percentage shots will greatly help the Lakers do just that.
It's just a matter of him adopting that type of game plan and sticking to it, while also getting his teammates involved and not going into hero mode too early.
X-Factor: Jodie Meeks
The Lakers will need all of the sparks they can get against the Thunder, assuming Gasol is unable to play, and Meeks is the player who fits this role best. He has been inconsistent for most of the season, but his brief history with Oklahoma City Thunder this season makes him a prime go-to guy in this game.
Meeks is only averaging 8.4 points per game and shooting just 38 percent from the field, and he does not have much size at 6'4", 208 pounds. He does, however, have some great prowess from long range, having shot a respectable 36.5 percent from there.
It is important that he utilize his long-range skills against the Thunder, just like he did earlier in the season. Meeks scored 17 points in Oklahoma City on December 7, shooting 4-of-8 from the field and 2-of-4 from long range. He also took eight trips to the free-throw line, making seven of his shots there.
He must take a similar approach in this game. That means using his three-point shot, incorporating the mid-range game and driving the lane when opportunity allows. The Lakers will need all the help they can get offensively with Howard and possibly Gasol out, and Meeks gives them a guard who can border on electrifying when he has the hot hand.
If he can get warmed up and convert opportunities against the Thunder, the Lakers' chances of winning instantly increase.
As much as the Lakers would love to come away with a close victory against the Thunder at home, it's just not going to happen. Dwight Howard is too important in both the size and defensive departments, and rookie Robert Sacre is just too raw a talent to be both a defensive force and also contribute on offense.
Who will win?
As a result, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will run rampant again, with some help from sixth man Kevin Martin and defense machine Serge Ibaka. Kendrick Perkins, though slow on his feet, will give Sacre a lesson on how to be an NBA center on both sides of the floor, and Lakers fans will end up groaning once again.
Thabo Sefolosha's defense will be spectacular. He will make Bryant crazy with frustration, and the five-time champ will try and compensate by throwing up shot after shot. Naturally, this approach will fail miserably, though Bryant may put up a good scoring amount by the final buzzer.
The worst of it will be that the Thunder will be ready for Jodie Meeks this time. Head coach Scott Brooks will have learned from his mistake in his team's first game against the Lakers, and he will have a plan in place to limit Meeks' opportunities.
As a result, despite a Lakers run here and there, the Thunder will contribute this game from start to finish, sending Los Angeles to a sixth straight loss.
Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Los Angeles Lakers 97
All statistics in this article are accurate as of January 10, 2013