The Lakers snapped a four game losing streak and finally notched another win on Friday night against the Jazz. Tonight the Lakers will face the best team in the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder and Lakers were both seen as pre-season title contenders but have taken quite different paths during the first half of the season. The Lakers have under-performed and are at the risk of missing the playoffs while the Thunder are on track to reach their second consecutive championship game. The Lakers are currently 0-2 against the Thunder this season. A win tonight would be huge for the Lakers, but it won’t come easy against the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Let’s take a look at how these two teams stack up.
Frontcourt: The Thunder’s front court is led by fourth year player Serge Ibaka. Ibaka averages 2.8 blocks per game along with 14 points and 8.3 rebounds. He is the Thunder’s primary shot blocker and last line of defense. This year he’s developed a consistent mid-range jump shot which means he can’t be left open anymore. Starting center Kendrick Perkins is a physical player who focuses on defense and rebounding. The Thunder won’t run many post plays for their big man, but it doesn’t matter since scoring is not his role. Off the bench, forward-center Collison is a workhorse of a player who is constantly setting screens and boxing out. He’s a hustle guy who is very active and impacts the games in aspects not reflected on the stat sheet.
Backcourt: Westbrook and Durant are the league’s only pair of 20+ point scorers who are on the same team. Durant is tearing it up this year with 29.5 points a game on 52.1% shooting along with 7.5 boards and 4.4 assists. He’s also getting it done defensively with career high averages of 1.3 blocks and 1.6 steals. The Lakers will have their hands full trying to limit Durant who is seemingly unstoppable. If there is one person who can stop Durant, it’s actually his own teammate Westbrook. There have been games this season where Westbrook dominated the ball and took way too many ill-advised shots. Westbrook is shooting just 41.7% from the field and seems to be looking for his shot more than ever this season. To be fair, he is also averaging a career high 8.3 assists per game and he will be very tough for the Lakers porous backcourt defense to stop. Sixth man Kevin Martin is the team’s third highest point getter with 15.2 points per game. He’s an excellent shooter from beyond the arc as evidenced by his 2.3 threes per game on 43.7% shooting. Martin spreads the floor and gives Westbrook and Durant more space to operate. Martin’s look-alike, Sefolosha is the team’s primary on-ball defender and he’ll have the tough assignment of guarding Kobe tonight.
Keys to Lakers’ Victory:
Assert Dwight Howard Early – One of the things the Lakers did right on Friday was getting Dwight the ball early and often in the 1st quarter. Kobe in particular took it upon himself to be the facilitator of the offense rather than force tough shots. In contrast to recent games, Howard tallied eight shot attempts in the first 12 minutes of the game. During the four consecutive losses, Howard only averaged 4.7 shot attempts which is far too few for the Lakers big man. The Lakers need to go to Howard early in the game tonight and have him assert his dominance in the post.
Win the Turnover Battle – The Lakers and Thunder are two of the most turnover prone teams in the league. Whoever wins the turnover battle should have a slight advantage in the score column. Westbrook and Durant are the Thunder’s most productive players but they also turn the ball over a combined 6.8 times a game. Since the Lakers lack a superior backcourt defender, they will need to play solid team defense and hedge on screens in order to stop Westbrook. Ron Artest needs to use his hands wisely and try to pickpocket Durant as much as possible.
Kobe’s Facilitation – After the win on Friday night Kobe seemed upbeat and positive regarding the team’s chemistry. Kobe clearly took it upon himself to lead the team by being the primary facilitator on offense. He tallied a season high 14 assists and a season low ten shots. It’s important for Kobe to get his teammates involved throughout the course of the game and keep the offense flowing. The Lakers are still Kobe’s team and he initiates the offense more often than Nash. The Thunder will be more than happy to watch Kobe force up tough shots in traffic and that’s exactly what Kobe needs to avoid doing.
Oklahoma City Thunder (34-10) at Los Angeles Lakers (18-25)
12:30 PM PST, January 27, 2013
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: Time Warner Sports Network
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Thunder Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Thabo Sefolosha
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Kendrick Perkins
Key Reserves: SG: Kevin Martin FC: Nick Collison