By John Carroll | Scouts Inc.
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder will face each other in a regular-season game that actually will have an effect on the standings in the Western Conference. The Thunder are in second place in the West, a half game behind the San Antonio Spurs. After their game in Los Angeles they have two games remaining versus Sacramento and Denver. The Lakers are in third place in the West but only a half game ahead of the Clippers.
This is the third meeting between these two teams and the Thunder has dominated both of the previous meetings this season. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have combined to average 54.5 points per game in the two Thunder wins. While the Thunder have been able to keep Kobe Bryant in check only allowing him to score 23.5 points per game and holding him to only 29.0 percent from the field.
Key Return: Bryant
Bryant returned to the Lakers lineup Friday night after sitting out the past seven games for the Lakers. Los Angeles went 5-2 in his absence because they made a concerted effort to get the ball inside to their big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
Lakers coach Mike Brown must find a way for the Lakers to spread their field goal attempts between Bryant, Bynum and Gasol. With Kobe out of the lineup their strategy was simple, get the ball inside. Now with Kobe back that is not easy. Ramon Sessions is much more likely to feed the ball directly into the low post, while Kobe has a tendency to hold the ball in an attempt to create his own 1-on-1 opportunities.
He had a very efficient return game on Friday night versus the Spurs shooting 58.0 percent from the field while scoring 15 points. But Gasol and Bynum combined for only 19 shots from the field and a total of 28 points in Kobe’s first game back. They had been averaging a combined 36.4 field goal attempts during Bryant’s absence.
In those seven games the two post players combined for 45.1 points per game and had been shooting 48.6 percent between the two players. Brown must find a balance between Bryant’s 1-on-1 abilities and the low-post scoring of both Bynum and Gasol in order for the Lakers to be successful in the playoffs.
Key Play: Pick-and-roll
The Lakers struggle in pick-and-rolls because they have a big and slow center and power forward. The Spurs exploited this twice with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili attacking the Laker perimeter defenders in multiple pick-and-rolls.
The Thunder will do the same thing to the Lakers going at them with multiple middle and side pick-and-rolls. They will especially look to involve the slow-footed Laker big men Bynum and Gasol. The Thunder will utilize Russell Westbrook and Ginobili with the ball and Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka will set the picks. By involving Bynum or Gasol in pick-and-rolls the Thunder will get open jump shots for their guards. The added bonus is to get the two Laker big men away from the basket and put them into movement. They not only have problems giving help to the man defending the ball but they struggle to give help and recover into the paint because of their lack of footspeed.
Key Play: Fast Break Points
The Thunder are one of the top fast-breaking teams in the NBA. They rank fifth in the NBA scoring 16.1 points per game in transition. They are a very good defensive team and a superb rebounding team. Their rebounding ignites their transition game and Westbrook is one of the fastest guards in the NBA pushing the ball from foul line to foul line. He puts extreme pressure on the opponent’s transition defense.
The Thunder have scored 19.0 fast break points in the last three games and 27.0 fast break points in their last outing versus Sacramento.
In their two games against the Lakers this season the Thunder have outscored the Lakers 46-14 in fast break points. It is extremely important that the Lakers are exact in their transition defense on Sunday. They cannot get overwhelmed by the Thunder in transition, so they must get 2-3 players back into the paint to slow down and corral Westbrook with the ball. Secondly they must identify and locate where Durant and Harden are and not allow them easy baskets flying down on the wings.