Just two years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder met in an opening-round series that was more competitive than the typical 1-8 matchup. While the Lakers knocked out Oklahoma City at the buzzer of Game 6 en route to a second championship in a row, the ages of the two teams' cores portended that the Thunder was on the rise while the Lakers were due to slip backward from the heights they had reached. Indeed, within two years, Oklahoma City has claimed the role of favorites and home-court advantage in this rematch.
Of course, there is more recent history between these two combatants, a term chosen intentionally. In a showdown on ABC during the season's final week, Metta World Peace brutally elbowed James Harden, causing a concussion and drawing a seven-game suspension that ended just in time for World Peace to play an important role in the Lakers' Game 7 win over Denver. While the Nuggets took L.A. the distance, the Thunder got key breaks to win three close games and sweep the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. Now, a rested Oklahoma City team looks to wipe out another recent champ.
WHEN OKLAHOMA CITY HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.8 possessions per 48 minutes regular season (6th NBA), 89.4 (5th) playoffs
Oklahoma City Offensive Rating: 111.6 points per 100 possessions regular season (2nd NBA), 112.3 (3rd) playoffs
L.A. Lakers Defensive Rating: 105.9 points per 100 possessions regular season (13th NBA), 107.3 (10th) playoffs
The biggest weakness of the Thunder offense is its tendency to turn the ball over. Oklahoma City committed turnovers more frequently on a per-possession basis than any other team during the regular season, though the Thunder took better care of the basketball against the Mavericks. Fortunately for Oklahoma City, the Lakers refuse to force turnovers. They apparently find stealing the basketball unethical. It's an unorthodox strategy, but the Lakers forced fewer turnovers per possession than anyone else, and they were 15th out of 16 in the first round of the playoffs. (Chicago forced fewer, by virtue of facing the risk-averse Philadelphia 76ers.)
In this battle of weakness against weakness, the Thunder won out during the regular season. Oklahoma City turned the ball over on 11.5 percent of possessions in three games against the Lakers, a rate that would have been the league's best mark over the course of the season. That's a huge advantage for the Thunder in this series.
Of course, for the Lakers to have an above-average defense with opponents getting so many shots, they must succeed elsewhere. Indeed, L.A. excels at using the size of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to wall off the paint, as Denver found out in the opening round. This has the biggest impact on Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook, who faces a unique paradox against the Lakers' defense. Because L.A. struggles to prevent penetration, Westbrook will get into the paint repeatedly, but will not be able to generate high-percentage shots.
In practice, the way that's played out is Westbrook attempting an average of 22.0 shots per game against the Lakers (a mark inflated slightly by the 42.7 minutes he averaged in the three meetings) while shooting just 33.3 percent from the field. Westbrook was able to pad his numbers by getting to the free throw line 25 times in the three games, and those fouls are useful, but he could entirely change the dynamic of this series by pitching out to the shooters the Lakers are leaving open instead of repeatedly flinging up shots in traffic.
The matchup is far more favorable for Kevin Durant, who generally prefers to pull up on the drive rather than attacking the 7-footers. Durant does have to contend with the strength of World Peace, which was a problem for him the last time these teams squared off in the playoffs. By this point, Durant is better equipped to neutralize that advantage with his ability to drive and pull up. He shot a pedestrian 42.3 percent from the field against the Lakers, but averaged 29.7 points per game.
The toughest matchup of the Thunder's big three for the Lakers might be James Harden, if only because his scoring ability demands that Kobe Bryant be attentive defensively. Oklahoma City missed Harden's presence after he was elbowed by World Peace in the last meeting. He's made an even 50 percent of his shots against the Lakers this season, including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc. After his impressive display in the closeout game at Dallas, Harden could also figure more heavily into the Thunder's late-game offense, giving the team more options and diversity.
WHEN THE LAKERS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 89.2 possessions per 48 minutes regular season (20th NBA), 89.6 (3rd) playoffs
L.A. Lakers Offensive Rating: 107.6 points per 100 possessions regular season (10th NBA), 108.3 (4th) playoffs
Oklahoma City Defensive Rating: 104.1 points per 100 possessions regular season (9th NBA), 103.6 playoffs (8th)
Oklahoma City boasts one of the league's premier defensive options against Bryant in stopper Thabo Sefolosha, who relishes opportunities to match up with the Lakers' star. According to NBA.com/Stats, Bryant has shot just 29.7 percent from the field with Sefolosha on the floor this season. What's surprising is how well the Thunder has defended Bryant even without Sefolosha. When he's on the bench, Bryant has shot barely better--31.6 percent.
Harden was the primary defensive matchup when Sefolosha was on the bench, and he was much more engaged than usual when defending Bryant. He did a good job of forcing Bryant to take contested jumpers. That's crucial in this series because Harden must be on the floor to finish games. If Oklahoma City also needs Sefolosha in the lineup to defend Bryant, that means going small with Durant at power forward and sacrificing the ability to defend Gasol in the post and keep him off the glass.
Scott Brooks also has several other options to take Bryant for a possession or two. Durant offers length on him, Westbrook can use his quickness, Derek Fisher has tremendous experience with Bryant though not enough size and Royal Ivey is a possible defensive sub if Sefolosha gets into foul trouble.
The other crucial member of the Thunder defense in this series is Kendrick Perkins, who will do battle with Andrew Bynum in the paint. Bynum has shot 42.4 percent against Oklahoma City with Perkins on the floor, per NBA.com/Stats, well below his usual mark. Perkins has the strength to force Bynum off his spots and make him take tougher shot attempts. Staying out of foul trouble will be crucial for Perkins so he can play extended minutes.
Gasol has been the most consistently effective offensive option for the Lakers against the Thunder, averaging 18.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists in three games. Gasol has a strength advantage against Serge Ibaka that allows him to score in the post. Nick Collison is actually the better defensive matchup for Gasol, though they will likely only square off when Gasol is anchoring the L.A. second unit and playing in the middle.
During much of the series win over Denver, Jordan Hill continued a stretch of strong play that began when he came off the bench for 14 points and 15 rebounds in the April win over Oklahoma City. Hill needs to punish the Thunder on the offensive glass when they go to their smaller lineups. The Lakers should be able to continue to use point guards Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake together in the backcourt going against Oklahoma City's duo of Westbrook and Fisher. Whether Blake or former teammate Fisher has the better shooting series coming off the bench could be a major factor.
Besides their history of playoff success, it's hard to find much to recommend the Lakers in this series. The Thunder was the better team over the course of the regular season, especially by point differential, and is coming off a stronger opening-round effort. Oklahoma City won the head-to-head series 2-1 despite playing two of the three games at the Staples Center, and held a comfortable lead in the last meeting before collapsing down the stretch, when Harden's absence loomed large.
The Thunder has been built to beat the Lakers, with ideal counterparts for both Bryant (in Sefolosha) and Bynum (in Perkins). The biggest possible edge for Los Angeles is Oklahoma City's inconsistent late-game execution. However, the Thunder's issues were overblown in the wake of the overtime loss to the Lakers, and they continued their pattern of winning most close games against Dallas. To win this series, the Lakers may need several coinflips to go their way. More likely, the Thunder will have control.
Oklahoma City in 5
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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