The Los Angeles Lakers have finally gotten back to .500 on the season, but face a tough test to keep up their positive run as they hit the road to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder. The hosts are looking to grab the top seed in the Western Conference as the San Antonio Spurs deal with injuries.
It's a titanic clash we've got in store. One team is looking to improve their playoff position, and the other is looking to get any playoff position. What will be the biggest keys to the matchup? Let's have a look.
Both teams enter this game on a positive run of form, with the Thunder having won four-of-five and the Lakers winning five-of-six. Both teams pulled out close wins against tough opposition Sunday, defeating the L.A. Clippers and Atlanta Hawks, respectively.
Both teams held big second-half leads that evaporated, and yet both were able to grind out the victories. Their ability to win the tough ones will prove crucial here, and being in a winning mood creates a positive collective mindset necessary to win big games at key moments.
Obviously, the likes of Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook and Dwight Howard will be the headline stars heading into this game. And while their play will likely be decisive in the final result, it'll be the players that work around them who could shift the balance of the game.
Steve Nash will be the Lakers' main distributor, but if he can get hot shooting on his own, that could spell danger for the Thunder. The hosts' tertiary scoring threat has mainly come from Kevin Martin, who has averaged over 14 points per game off the bench (via NBA.com).
The speed at which this matchup operates could be pivotal in deciding how things play out as well. The two squads operate in completely different ways, and how each team reacts to the other will affect the action. As Howard stated earlier today:
I think if we slow the ball down and we play the way we want to play, we should win the game. They want to get out and run. That's not to our favor. We're not a run-and-gun team, so I think the best way to play those guys is to slow the ball down and make them play in a half-court offense.
- via ESPN
This is evidence that tempo could be the biggest factor here. After all, the Thunder have the fifth-most fast-break points in the league, while the Lakers have allowed the most such points (via NBA.com). If the visitors can even slightly slow things down, they've got a good chance to take this one.