With another showdown with the Lakers Sunday, I exchanged some questions with the terrific brothers Kamenetzky at ESPNLA.com’s Land O’Lakers blog. Here’s my part over on their side and here’s their answers to a few of my questions. (Also, here’s me talking about the matchup on ESPN Radio 710 LA with them.)
1. The Thunder and Lakers have played some pretty chippy games this season with a hefty amount of talking and physical play. Any reason you see for this?
Brian Kamenetzky: To some degree, I think the Lakers know they have to be physical to slow the Thunder down. Not in that typical, the-NBA-is-a-physical-place way, but I mean literally by being physical. Grabbing them, closing as much space on them as possible defensively (as in Metta World Peace doing his best to slide into Kevin Durant’s jersey, and so on. OKC’s chirpiness probably rubs some of the veterans on L.A. the wrong way. K.D. is a pretty stoic fellow, but Harden has been very vocal in the two games when matched up with Kobe and Westbrook isn’t exactly a wallflower. Perk has a history with the Lakers going back to the Celtics, too, which plays into it. And maybe it’s just me, I get the impression the Thunder really dig the idea of being better than the Lakers, and to some degree can measure themselves against the team that bounced them from their first playoff run a couple years back.
2. Kobe has gone 14-49 in two games against OKC this season. Have the Thunder figured something out, or is it just a matter of two off games?
BK: I think it’s the matchups. Thabo Sefolosha is the type of defender capable of giving Kobe trouble. He’s a good athlete capable of moving his feet to cut off driving lanes, has the length to give a little space and increase his margin for error without losing the ability to contest. And since Sefolosha doesn’t carry a burden offensively, he can focus his energy entirely on Bryant. But he’s always been solid. The biggest difference to me has been the effectiveness of Harden when matched up with Bryant. He’s been great in both games, putting a lot of pressure on Kobe, not biting on pump fakes, staying in front of him, and so on. When both of those guys can do the job, shot creation for Kobe gets a lot tougher. Generally speaking, the Lakers have to do a better job moving Kobe off the ball and running his defenders through screens so Bryant doesn’t catch with his defender set in front of him, something especially true against OKC now that the Thunder have two guys confident in their ability to make him work for good looks
3. Durant and Kobe are neck-and-neck for the scoring title. Players like to say they don’t care about such things, but do you think Kobe would take a little satisfaction taking that honor from Durant?
BK: I do, no question. Bryant has made those who have doubted his ability to perform at his age and mileage level — whether real or of his own invention — a primary motivator throughout the season. Often in colorful language, too. To win a scoring title would absolutely prove the point he’s tried to make. Still, I wonder how he’ll respond over the last two games for the Lakers. I can easily see him going all out and trying to hold off Durant, and I can also see him going the other way, playing distributor on Sunday and even sitting in the season finale against Sacramento (assuming the game doesn’t mean anything for L.A.), even if it means Durant wins the scoring crown.
Either way, though, I think he’d take real pride in the accomplishment, for sure.
4. The buzz around Ramon Sessions seems to have tempered a bit, but can he take the Lakers to another level in the playoffs?
BK: If he can’t, the Lakers won’t get to another level, that’s for sure. Sessions played his worst game of the season Friday in San Antonio. Advertised as a subpar defender, Sessions has basically “delivered” since the trade. Some of his defensive metrics are basically a wash for the much maligned Derek Fisher, and others (Synergy’s points per play measurements, for example) actually grade Sessions as less effective. He struggles against the pick and roll, in part because he doesn’t fight through screens effectively, and isn’t a great help defender, either. For much of his time in L.A., it really hasn’t mattered because he was light years ahead of Fisher at the other end, making his overall impact a very positive one. His ability to push in transition, to create his own shot off the dribble, and effectively run the pick and roll both as a scorer and distributor have improved the Lakers’ offense considerably. In a lot of ways, he’s their first “modern” point guard since Nick Van Exel.
Unfortunately, he’s been slowed by a shoulder injury, which has sucked some life out of his offensive game and highlighted his defensive shortcomings. The Lakers will need him to patch up some of the problems against the pick and roll, but most importantly he has to be a force at the other end, or they won’t create enough offense to make a deep playoff run.
5. Would the Lakers prefer OKC move up to No. 1 so they could avoid the Thunder in Round 2, or are they happy drawing OKC instead of the Spurs in the second round?
BK: Well, the C.W. leading into this week said the Lakers would be better off with San Antonio. Two blowouts at the hands of the Spurs have certainly put a damper on that, but overall the Lakers would probably rather avoid OKC until the Western Conference Finals, if at all possible. The athleticism, ability to score in transition, the great offensive talent, and so on– it’s an intimidating package. Certainly to this point, the Lakers have shown no indication they could beat this Thunder team four times in seven games.