The storylines are aplenty. Elbows, trash talk, revenge, vendettas, old vs. new, Derek Fisher vs. the Lakers, legacies and on and on and on. But forget the angles, the hooks, the sidebars. All of that is just noise to what really matters — winning.
The Thunder have been sitting and waiting for the second round for some time while their opponent had to scratch its way here. What that means? Who knows. But the Thunder are where they need to be, well rested and (hopefully) healthy. They dispatched the Mavericks as planned, looked to restore some of their former power in doing so and should roll well into the second round to face the very formidable Lakers.
What scares me most is how good I feel. I hate that. The Thunder have been in the postseason three times now and this is far and away the best I’ve felt about a playoff series. That could be irrational overconfidence. That could just be delusion built up over nine days of over-thinking and boredom. But from everything I can see, the Thunder have a clear edge against the Lakers. Though again, that type of feeling is what scares me. Then again, it’s the playoffs and virtually anything scares me. Nothing feels right at this point.
Oklahoma City took the season series 2-1 over the Lakers. Here’s how those games played out:
Thunder 100, Lakers 85: Fairly tight affair until the late third when Harden and Durant started a barrage of points that put the game away.
Thunder 102, Lakers 93: The Lakers built an early lead but Russell Westbrook took the game completely over culminating that with his buzzer-beating 3 at the end of the third.
Lakers 114, Thunder 106, 2 OT: The Thunder, with little to play for, had control of the game but saw their offense sputter down the stretch as Harden was out after the elbow. Durant and Westbrook didn’t make anything as Kobe hit bit late shots and the Thunder couldn’t close.
RELEVANT SEASON STATS
Offensive efficiency: Lakers 103.3 (10th), Thunder 107.1 (2nd)
Defensive efficiency: Lakers 101.7 (13th), Thunder 100.0 (9th)
Pace (possessions per game) : 92.9 (20th), 95.7 (5th)
Rebound rate (percentage of shots a team rebounds) : Lakers 53 (second), Thunder 51.4 (fifth)
Turnover rate (turnovers per 100 possessions) : Lakers 24.9 (19th), Thunder 26.5 (30th)
FIVE BIG THINGS
1. The World Peace problem. It’s obviously the major hook to this series. World Peace visits OKC and will see James Harden. But he won’t shake his hand! How will this go down? The thing is, it doesn’t really matter. I guarantee Harden doesn’t care. He doesn’t need some act of sportsmanship from World Peace to move on. It’s about basketball now and that’s it.
The whole thing makes for a great angle to the game and there’s certainly a little more anticipation for tonight’s game than there would otherwise be. But don’t let Metta World Peace and all the noise surrounding him and what he says or does distract from the task at hand. It’s not about getting back at him, or getting in his head (more than he’s already in his own) or revenge. It’s about winning Game 1.
(Although, since there’s been some discussion about how to approach World Peace tonight, here’s my advice. Boo him. Boooooo him. Boo the crap out of him. Silent treatment is fun in theory, but it won’t be quiet enough. It will never be quiet enough to where it was actually recognizable. It’s just unrealistic. Besides, it’s not like he’s going to go, “Ohmygosh, it’s quiet! What now!?!” Plus, you have the fact there’s always a decent amount of Laker bandwagoners in the building so if you’re silent, all anyone will hear are their cheers.
What will be impressive if it’s the fourth quarter and he’s still lustily hearing boos every time he touches the ball. Not half silences. I’ve heard some people use the word “classy” for not booing him. Booing has nothing to do with being classy. Being silent doesn’t make you that. It’s just about being a fan, doing your part and being loud. Just because you boo doesn’t mean there’s a lack of sportsmanship. Throwing stuff or chanting vulgarities? Yeah, that’s crossing the line. But good old fashion booing, clever chants and funny signs are part of the responsibility Thunder fans carry tonight in welcome Metta World Peace to OKC.)
2. Rest or rust? The Thunder have had nine days off. The Lakers two. You can look at this two ways: The Thunder are rested and ready while the Lakers are tired and worn. Or the Thunder are rusty and tense while the Lakers are in rhythm and loose. That kind of stuff is nearly impossible to predict, but I remember the Thunder having a little time while waiting for the Grizzlies to start the second round last playoffs. And the Thunder came out a little tight in that game, missing good looks, turning it over and not playing with much confidence. It’s not the rust that worries me. It’s being a bit too anxious.
3. Rebounding. I think the Thunder can defend the Lakers as well as anyone. OKC has size, two good defenders for Kobe and the best rim protector in the game. But it comes down to the defensive glass. The Thunder have had issues this season allowing offensive rebounds, and that’s something obviously the Lakers do well. The Thunder have to minimize second chances because I think their defense is good enough to get plenty of stops. They just can’t be having to get two, three or four stops a trip.
4. Small ball. The Thunder’s small ball lineup has become Scott Brooks’ favorite lineup weapon to use, but the Lakers can make it difficult because of their interior size. So the question is, will Brooks still go small if Gasol and Bynum are on the floor? Would he go with KD at the 4 covering Gasol and Perk on Bynum? Or even risk Ibaka on Bynum? It obviously would create a mismatch on the other end, but the worry is rebounding. The Nuggets used a small lineup to great effect against the Lakers, but couldn’t grab a board. The Thunder have been known to struggle there too, so it’s a risky move. But I’m sure we’ll see plenty of it.
5. Running. The Thunder are at their best when playing fast and loose. And the Lakers are at their worst when their opponent starts playing fast and loose. Outrunning the Lakers isn’t the challenge. It’s about forcing the turnover, grabbing the rebound or getting the stop that leads to the opportunity to run.
1. Perk’s health. He’s officially a gametime decision but I would bet on him playing in Game 1. He relishes defending Bynum because really, it’s what he’s paid well to do. But it’s not just about him playing, it’s about him playing at capacity. He need to be 100 percent or at least close to it. He’s been playing exceptionally well in the postseason, rebounding well and contributing a bit on the offensive end. The hip can’t be lingering. The Thunder are probably better with a 75 percent Perk than a 100 percent Nazr Mohammed or Cole Aldrich, but still, playing hurt isn’t a good thing. If Perk’s healthy, the Thunder are in really good shape.
2. Bynum’s attitude. Andrew Bynum is maybe the most frustrating professional athlete I can remember watching. He’s just an immature child. To not understand what he’s capable of and to pout and act the way he does is infuriating. Except right now. He can do those things all he wants. In fact, I openly encourage it. Sit out of huddles, clothesline people, talk crap about your coach, shove Kobe — do it all. Go nuts, Andrew.
3. OKC’s bench.The Laker bench is fairly terrible while the Thunder’s has returned to a little of its old pre-Maynor injury form. The Thunder will have its best advantage when it’s bench vs. bench, but OKC’s second unit has to capitalize on every opportunity. For three minutes or however long it’s that matchup, be a +6 or a +4. Make sure the game is better off when you leave it than it was when you found it.
4. Laker shooters. Without Steve Blake, and the Thunder are playing the Nuggets tonight and not the Lakers. Blake found his outside jumper at the right time, becoming the Lakers’ new Derek Fisher. He hit big 3s, was available for a kickout on every double-team and knocked down the looks he got. Those shots are likely going to be there again for Blake and company, and if they’re knocking them down with great consistency, it could make things difficult on the Thunder.
THREE LINGERING THOUGHTS
1. The Thunder can defend Kobe. Remember, the first two meeting, Kobe went 14-49 against the Thunder. In the third meeting, he still went 9-26. He hit big shots down the stretch, but it’s not like Kobe ever torched OKC. He shots just 31 percent in three meetings, in fact. Between Thabo and Harden, the Thunder can throw quality on ball defenders against Kobe that will contest his jumper and force him away from his spots.
2. Serge Ibaka has the opportunity to make some money in this series. He’ll be defending Gasol, which is a challenge. He’ll need to swat some shots. And he’ll have the opportunity to get involved in the pick-and-pop game as well as on the offensive glass. Ibaka has always played well against the Lakers and could be in for a big series.
3. KD holds the keys. Kobe will guard Westbrook again, but Russ still should be able to get his for the most part. Harden should be steady. But it’s KD that could either make this a sweep, or take it to a tough seven-game series. World Peace doesn’t defend Durant as well as most think, and KD’s going to get his looks. If he scores efficiently, creates and does his normal KD thing, the Thunder will get all the points they need and put this away in four of five. If Durant struggles late, misses good looks and turns it over, the Lakers will likely take a couple games and this thing could get interesting.
The pick: Thunder in five. Obviously this could be a most difficult series. In the same way the Thunder swept the Mavericks, I think we could all agree it didn’t feel like a sweep. Other than one, those wins came with great attrition. I think the Thunder are much better than the Lakers and the season series proved it, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. When you’re playing Kobe Bryant, there’s always the chance things are difficult. If games are close in the fourth, the Lakers will have a puncher’s chance because of The Mamba.
But if the Thunder do what they do and do it well, there’s no reason they shouldn’t handle business. Trust me, I hate feeling this way.