Thunder vs. Lakers: L.A.'s Keys to Victory

Kristian Winfield@@KrisWinfield_Correspondent IIIJanuary 27, 2013

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - DECEMBER 07:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks at Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers December 7, 2012 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Oklahoma City defeated Los Angeles 114-108. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.   (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)
Brett Deering/Getty Images

If the Los Angeles Lakers have any hope of turning their season around and pulling off a miraculous, last-second turnaround, it's going to have to start today.

And who better to test your strength and will to win against than the NBA's best team?

Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers will be hosting perennial MVP candidate Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in a game whose outcome could likely spell out the remainder of the season for both teams.

The Thunder have been on a roll, to say the least. They have the league's best record at 34-10 (a .773 winning percentage) and don't look as though they'll be slowing down any time soon.

The Lakers, on the other hand, haven't been as fortunate.

At 18-25, Los Angeles is currently tied with the floundering Dallas Mavericks for a .419 winning percentage. But after an impressive statement win over the Utah Jazz on Friday night, 102-84, the Lakers are looking to make a mid-season surge to one of the bottom seeds of the playoffs.

But if they're going to make that push, it'll have to start tonight against the league's deadliest team.


What To Watch For:

Who's going to guard Russell Westbrook?

 Aside from Kobe Bryant, the Lakers don't have a single person who can put a stop to Russell Westbrook. Mike D'Antoni isn't the best at crafting defenses, and Steve Nash may easily be the worst starting point guard in the NBA from a defensive standpoint.

Westbrook has killed the Lakers so far this season. In their two games against each other, he's torched L.A.'s guards for an average of 30 points, nine assists and 1.5 steals. If the Lake Show is going to make it to the big dance—the playoffs, in this picture—they'll have to find a way to cool off younger, quicker, more explosive guards. And it all starts tonight with Russell Westbrook.


Will Kobe continue to share the ball?

 In the Lakers' last win over the Jazz, Kobe put up his most impressive stat line of the season. Along with 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field, Kobe dished out a season-high 14 assists—one shy of his career high of 15 back in 2002—and grabbed nine rebounds.

As a result, both Dwight Howard and Metta World Piece logged 18 points, and both Steve Nash and Pau Gasol put up 15. Bryant ran the pick-and-roll to near perfection with Howard, Gasol and even Antawn Jamison, and played as a facilitator, creating open looks for the rest of his teammates.

But how long will Kobe Bryant look to feed and not to eat? How long until he reverts back to his old shot-jacking ways? Against a much tougher opponent in the Thunder, we will see whether the Mamba can stick to the game plan or jack up another 30 shots.


Will Dwight Howard get his touches?

 I'm a firm believer in Dwight "Superman" Howard. I truly believe that when he's 100 percent and getting decent looks at the basket, he's the best center in the NBA.

That being said, Howard is clearly not 100 percent. Regardless of how healthy he is, he can still be a dominant presence on defense IF he gets going on offense. Bryant and Nash need to feed Howard early in the game and make the Thunder double-team him in order to get open looks at the basket. 

If Howard gets an early eight points in the first quarter, there's no doubt in my mind he'll be somewhat active and intense on defense.


What about Pau Gasol?

 I'm also a firm believer that size has made the Lakers one of the more unbeatable teams in the NBA for the past decade, and that their best starting five would feature the twin towers of both Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.

Gasol is still a threat in the low and high blocks, not to mention he's easily the best passing big man in the NBA. He's got a respectable 15-18-foot jump shot, and I feel that there's some way, shape or form that he can be integrated into the D'Antoni offense. 

Gasol could be the x-factor that the Lakers so desperately need to become that feared Western Conference powerhouse once again. 

If the L.A. Lakers can stick to the game plan—whatever that may be—and pull off a solid win over the Thunder today, we could be looking at one of the greatest turnarounds the NBA has ever seen.