The Los Angeles Lakers have already twice lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder this season, but can get one step closer to evening the season series when Kevin Durant & Company visit the Staples Center for a nationally televised game.
Los Angeles is coming off a big win against the Utah Jazz on January 25, one that finally saw the team work as a strong and cohesive unit. Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace led with 17 points apiece, but that was not the story of the game.
That honor belonged to star guard Kobe Bryant, who had just 14 points on 7 of 10 shooting and also had an incredible 14 assists. He was in full playmaking mode, and everyone played unselfishly. The same type of attack will be needed against Oklahoma City.
Of course, that isn't going to be easy by any means. The Thunder have won three of five and currently own the best record in the NBA. They have also defeated the Lakers twice already this season, and have a respectable road record of 15-7.
The Lakers are going to be out to defend their home court, and prepared to take Dwight Howard's words to heart once again. With the game on national television and Jack Nicholson leading a rowdy Lakers crowd, fans should expect an intense, high-scoring matchup from start to finish.
Time: Sunday, January 27th, 3:30 p.m. EST
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (34-10) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (18-25)
Betting Line: Not available as of Saturday, January 26, 10:45 a.m. EST
Injuries: Steve Blake (abdomen, day-to-day), Jordan Hill (hip, out)
Key Storyline: Can Lakers Turn Tides and Avenge Earlier Losses to OKC?
The Lakers need to right the ship quickly, and will need to play better basketball than they did against the Thunder earlier this season. The teams first met in Oklahoma City on December 7, and to Los Angeles' defense, the Lakers did a good job of getting hot in the fourth quarter and closing the gap.
Unfortunately, their effort was too little too late. The Thunder won 114-108, thanks to 36 points and nine rebounds from Kevin Durant and 33 points from Russell Westbrook. Not even 35 points from Kobe Bryant and 18 rebounds from Dwight Howard could save the Lakers.
They faced off once again earlier this month, on January 11, but the Lakers were unable to keep that one close at all. Oklahoma City won 116-101, with Durant scoring 42 points this time and Westbrook chipping in 27 of his own, plus 10 assists.
Granted, the Lakers were without Howard for that game, but they now know what they need to do to come away with a win against the defending Western Conference champs. Though a non-factor in Mike D'Antoni's system, the team needs to put up a strong defensive effort or something close to it.
Like the Lakers, the Thunder are a team that likes to run, and the team that executes more of its opportunities is going to win. In Los Angeles' case, it is not just about doing that, but also limiting those of Oklahoma City.
Key Matchup: Metta World Peace vs. Kevin Durant
As I mentioned before, the key to beating the Thunder is slowing down Kevin Durant. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. The man is leading the league in scoring once again, with 29.5 points per game.
Durant has also shot 52 percent from the field and made 42 percent of his threes. On offense, he is near unstoppable, using his 6'9", 235 pound build to absolute dominate the opposition. He can drive the lane just as well as he creates off the dribble, and trying to stop him from scoring is near-impossible.
However, offense is not all that Durant has done this season. He has also shown a new commitment to defense, averaging 7.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. The man has always been a solid defender, but seems to have an extra bounce in his step in that department this year.
That said, Metta World Peace is going to be in for a long afternoon. The Lakers' top pest will need to employ his signature lockdown defense in hopes of slowing Durant's game, and his 1.7 steals per contest can certainly help his cause.
World Peace must also be a force on offense. After being a disappointment in his first three seasons with the Lakers, he has come alive as a shooter in D'Antoni's run-and-gun offense. He is averaging 13.6 points per game on the season and has shot 36 percent from long range.
Slowing down Durant is not going to be at all easy for World Peace. The former Texas Longhorn has posted 35.6 points and 7.8 rebounds over his last five games, and has shot 49.5 percent from the field through that stretch.
If World Peace can slow him down and force just a small number of his shots, that could prove to be the difference-maker. Though Russell Westbrook is also a fine scorer, the Thunder rely so heavily on Durant's consistency.
Take that out of the equation, and a victory becomes a lot more difficult.
X-Factor: Pau Gasol
As a whole, Pau Gasol has been disappointing for the Lakers this season. He has struggled mightily in D'Antoni's system due to not having as much time in the low-post and is averaging a career-worst 12.8 points to go with 8.2 rebounds per game and a field goal percentage of 44 percent.
The Spanish seven-footer has done slightly better since being moved to a bench role. In his last five games, Gasol has averaged 16 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 57 percent from the field. That's a lot more like the Gasol the fans know and love.
Gasol needs to keep up that type of production against Oklahoma City. He'll either be guarded by Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins, two fine defensive presences. Long story short, Gasol just has to fight past both of them.
This means manning the low-post and throwing the season's struggles behind him. If he has an open jump shot, he has to take it without hesitation. Yes, it is out of his comfort zone, but D'Antoni's offense calls for the power forward to be a stretch 4 and not one who lives in the paint from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
Gasol is such a good athlete and has a basketball IQ high enough that he can definitely play this role well. It's just a matter of him embracing it and getting over his reservations.
So long as Gasol is fully focused, then the Lakers have a chance at pulling off an upset.
There is one thing that can definitely be said about this game. It's going to be close.
At least in one game, the Lakers took Howard's words to heart and came together to form a balanced attack that resulted in a victory. They'll bring that same approach against the Thunder in hopes of avenging two earlier losses this season.
Unfortunately, despite a respectable effort, it's not going to happen. The Thunder are just too strong on offense, and the Lakers' overall defense is still too weak.
Kevin Durant will go on to have another great game in the scoring department, with Russell Westbrook contributing his fair share as well. Kevin Martin will provide solid scoring off the bench, continuing to make his case for Sixth Man of the Year.
Who will win?
To the Lakers' credit, they will do a fine job of keeping the game close from start to finish. Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard will be the go-to guys on offense, with Howard finishing with a double-double, and Bryang going into Mamba Mode in the fourth quarter will keep the game a nail-biter.
The sad part is that the Lakers will fail in one area when it counts: execution. Failure to score on key possessions and play consistently solid defense against Oklahoma City will see Los Angeles suffer yet another loss.
However, unlike previous ones, this loss will serve as a motivating factor as to just how the Lakers need to approach tough games going forward.
Oklahoma City Thunder 116, Los Angeles Lakers 112