We know the task ahead of the Thunder starting this weekend. Not only does the youngest team in the league have to take down the defending champions, but they also have to take down one of the most storied franchises in all of sports. It won’t be easy. It won’t be pretty. And at times, it won’t be fun. You’ll yell, cuss, scream and want to toss a potted plant through your TV screen at least once.
But here’s the thing: The Lakers are vulnerable. They’re… beatable. It’s true. Kobe is banged up with the busted finger and swollen knee. The bench is depleted with Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton all battling injuries. Andrew Bynum may or may not be 100 percent. And Derek Fisher has been anything but stable in his 39th season as an NBA point guard. So if there were a time for a young, raw, inexperienced team to sneak up and bite The Champs, this might be it.
There are probably 200 things that need to go Oklahoma City’s way for it to take this series, but I’ve tried to narrow it down to the 10 most important things the Thunder has to hope for if they want to shock the world.
1. Limit Lamar Odom. This is No. 1 for a reason. I really think the series hinges on Odom, and quite possibly the entire postseason does for LA on Mr. Kardashian. He’s bruised the Thunder inside before for 17 and 18 rebounds. He’s scored from inside and out. And if he gets going, he WILL be the X-Factor in the series. Depending on Bynum’s status, Odom may be coming off the bench, but he’ll still see 30 minutes in each game. He’s a tough match for Jeff Green, but the Thunder has a bevy of big men to toss at him.
2. Get Nenad Krstic back. What is OKC when he scores 10 or more points? 82-0 or somesuch? I don’t think any of us realized the inside presence the seven-foot Serbian has. He’s not a big rebounder and he’s not a big shot blocker. But he’s solid in post defense and when he starts hitting his 18-foot jumpers, he’s a dynamic addition to the Thunder offense. Nick Collison is a fine player and a hard worker, but he’s not ready to start a seven-game series against the Lakers at center. Krstic isn’t the long-term answer at the five, but in this short-term, Oklahoma City needs him badly.
3. Rattle the Lakers in OKC. This is the biggest advantage the Thunder has. The Ford Center might just be one of the best playoff atmospheres you’ve ever seen come next Tuesday. Winning in Staples won’t be easy and really isn’t likely. But hitting the Lakers in the mouth in Loud City, shaking them up and rattling their cage is a big time key. Obviously the Thunder has to win at least one on the road to take this series, but if the Ford Center rocks LA so much that they legitimately fear it, they might even play tight on their home court out of fear of going back to OKC.
4. Determine your own pace. I talked about this a little after the Blazer game, but OKC needs to figure out and identity and a game plan and try and hang with it. LA plays a similar pace to the Thunder and doesn’t look to run much. But that shouldn’t prevent OKC from getting out on transition. The Lakers are likely to grind out possessions and try and beat the Thunder on the glass and by getting stops. But again, the Thunder can’t fall into playing the same game as LA. Shake it up and be aggressive for all 48 minutes. You’ve literally got nothing to lose, so just play free, play loose and go after it.
5. Rely on Kevin Durant, but not THAT much. Obviously, KD is the key for the Thunder. Ron Artest will try and bully the heck out of him, but Durant has to score for OKC to hang tough. But it can’t become a one-man show late in games looking for KD in iso situations or in that high-post post-up play. Russell Westbrook has to take Derek Fisher on. James Harden has to hit open looks, drive and finish. Serge Ibaka has to clean up inside. Jeff Green needs to ditch the jumper and take it to the rim (and hit open 3s when he’s got them). As mentioned, Nenad Krstic needs to have the feathery jumper going. Durant will likely need to average around 30 a game for the Thunder to stay tight enough to win, but the supporting cast is going to be what wins this, not Durant.
6. Let Russell Westbrook loose. Westbrook is at his best when he’s playing with some swagger. When he’s loose and confident in his game, he’s just dynamic. And he should have no problem beating Derek Fisher off the dribble and getting to the rim. So similar to the previous point, if 20 shots are there for Westbrook and a 30-point night is to be had, take it. Points won’t be easy to come by in this series and the one MAJOR advantage OKC has is at point guard. So Westbrook has to harness everything. Find open men for good looks when it’s there. Take the ball to the rim when it’s there. When the offense stalls, take over and make a play. Really, a lot of this series hinges on the second-year player. That’s a tad scary, I realize.
7. Limit dry spells. OKC just isn’t going to win games going four minutes without a field goal. Even as good as Thabo is, you’re not going to stop Kobe on eight or nine straight possessions. So if you’re offense goes dry, you could be looking at an 8-0 run from the other side if you’re not careful. This is something the Thunder has had issues with lately, and this is exactly where you rely on your star to get you a bucket and break those bad stretches.
8. Defend the fourth quarter. In every game, regular season included, fourth quarter points are harder to come by. Officials let players get a little rougher, players tighten up and miss open shots and teams crank up their defense. Scoring drops down and if you don’t defend and match that intensity, you’re going to lose. This is something Oklahoma City has done well for most of this year and it’s absolutely something that has to happen to stay competitive in this series.
9. Little things. Extra possessions for LA can’t happen. Dumb turnovers leading to extra LA possessions can’t happen. Blown dunks on fast breaks can’t happen (Russell Westbrook cough cough cough). Jump balls need go the Thunder’s way. I could go on and on and on. You know the tiny little things in a basketball game, especially the last four minutes, that can’t swing the outcome. In at least four games, these need to go the Thunder’s way. You’re not simply going to outplay the Lakers in four games. Some of them you’re going to have to make your own breaks and come up with a stellar play.
10. Get lucky. It’s as simple as it sounds. Maybe karma spins around and OKC gets away with a big foul late in a game. Maybe Kobe doesn’t get calls and KD does. Maybe Ron Artest completely loses his mind in Game 2, punches an usher, takes off his jersey and yells into the PA, “SCREW YOU DAVID STERN.” Whatever the case, OKC needs some luck. Really, everyone needs a little bit of fortune, but in Oklahoma City’s case maybe they need a little more than most.
Tomorrow, a big bad breakdown of this whole thing.