Will the real Oklahoma City Thunder please stand up? The team that gave the Lakers fits as an eighth seed in last year’s playoffs was missing several key players for its showdown Sunday with Los Angeles.
Yet it was two near misses away from sending this one into overtime, as the Lakers escaped Oklahoma with a 90-87 come from behind win on the road.
Two key players who were involved in the same blockbuster trade a week earlier—Oklahoma’s reliable scoring forward Jeff Green (15.2 points per game with the Thunder) and one of the league’s better immovable objects in the paint, 6’10”, 280-pound Kendrick Perkins of the Celtics—switched teams, with the latter sitting out the Lakers game due to a knee injury that hasn’t healed yet.
So the new-look Thunder played the Lakers to a virtual standstill Sunday and did so without all guns loaded.
Los Angeles has come out of the All-Star break looking refreshed and playing much better than the impostors who went into Cleveland and proceeded to play like your local YMCA pickup squad. With their sloppy 90-79 win at Minnesota on Tuesday, the Lakers' latest winning streak reached five games.
But the fact remains that Oklahoma is a rising power in the NBA, and the acquisition of Perkins means they’re serious about trying to take those next steps towards a championship now and for the next few seasons. The Lakers may indeed face the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
The question which begs to be answered: Does Oklahoma City have enough thunder to finally rain down on the Lakers' parade and send them running for cover in 2011?
Kendrick Perkins was on the bench last June in Game 7 when the Lakers came from 13 down to defeat his Celtics and win the NBA championship. Now, he has an opportunity with the Thunder to be on the floor and help them knock off the two-time champs.
"They're deeper in the paint and now they'll get more presence in the paint," Lakers forward Lamar Odom told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times. "I guess they feel like they'll need it because our presence is so strong."
Perkins is a solid defender and one of the best in the NBA at setting screens. What he does not possess is a strong offensive game. His numbers this season are limited due to injury: In 26 minutes, he averages a little over seven points and eight rebounds per game.
A healthy Perkins will certainly present problems for Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Odom. If coach Scott Brooks pairs Perkins with newly acquired center Nazr Mohammed, who scored 16 points in 24 minutes against the Lakers two weeks ago while playing for Charlotte, the Thunder will see many more opportunities for easy buckets from the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Nate Robinson brings energy and the ability to penetrate the lane. He’ll be a more than suitable backup for super guard Russell Westbrook.
The mercurial point guard is certainly no stranger to playoff competition and is all too familiar with the current Lakers. Robinson went off for 12 points as the Celtics defeated the Lakers in Game 4 of the Finals last June at TD Garden in Boston.
He can score in a hurry, and his enthusiasm fits right in with the young starters. Robinson may have been the "throw-in" part of the Perkins deal, but his presence will be felt, and he could cause the Lakers some problems.
Thabo Sefolosha may be the best defensive guard in the league.
The 26-year-old, 6’7” native of Switzerland loves the challenge of taking on the other team’s top talent. Kobe Bryant scored 17 points in the Lakers' win Sunday, but Sefolosha made him work for every point.
Not normally thought of as a scorer, Sefolosha now must pick up the pace since Jeff Green's departure. He knocked down a couple of three-pointers early Sunday against the Lakers, demonstrating a brimming sense of confidence that he can play with the champs on both ends of the court.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are a year older, a year wiser and about five years better. These two form one of the NBA’s most dynamic tandems, as tantalizing and sublime as LeBron James-Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol.
When they are on, which is most often, Westbrook and Durant are virtually unstoppable. Both All-Stars with tremendous court vision, these two present a multitude of problems for the Lakers.
Westbrook penetrates at will, often making his opponent appear in slow motion. Durant faces up to the basket and has tremendous hang time. Westbrook is the stronger of the two and plays much bigger than his 6'3" frame. Durant has range from everywhere on the court.
By virtue of his 22 ppg and 8.4 assists, Westbrook accounts for at least 40 points per game. He also pulls down five rebounds and has absolutely no fear around the basket.
Durant is the league's leading scorer at 28.5 ppg and has an impressive 25.37 efficiency rating, good for seventh best in the NBA. Durant is also not afraid to go to the hole and is currently No. 2 in the league in free throws made with 424.
Between their scoring (combined for 50 per game) and assists (11.2 combined) Westbrook and Durant account for about 72 points per game. That, in itself, is astonishing.
Jeff Green made 56 three-pointers in 49 games with the Thunder before being traded. Other players will need to step up and pick up the scoring slack for the team in order for them to progress.
As much pressure as Durant and Westbrook have experienced in the past, it's probably twice as much now that Green's offense has gone on the road to Boston. One has to wonder if Perkins and Mohammed alone can stand up to Bynum, Odom and Gasol.
"They're different," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson of the Thunder to Los Angeles Times writer Mike Bresnahan.
"We'll see if they're better. They're going to be more of a bang 'em, sock 'em type of team."
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a dangerous team that just got stronger. Did they get better? That's hard to tell at this point.
It's always difficult to alter a winning team more than halfway through a successful season. Chemistry plays an enormous role in the NBA, sometimes even winning out over raw talent.
The Thunder present a lot of problems for the Lakers. But so too do the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs.
After all is said and done, the Lakers still possess the most overall talent in the NBA. As they get healthy, welcome back Matt Barnes and prepare for a run at a three-peat, there is really just one major obstacle standing in their way: themselves.