Despite their loss to the Pacers on Monday, the Lakers have enjoyed some success in December, going 4-4 in the month. That said, they have a brutal upcoming schedule, which starts tonight against the Oklahoma City Thunder as they take on one of the league’s hottest teams. Since the return of Russell Westbrook (and Kevin Durant shortly thereafter), the Thunder have gone 8-2 and will be looking to notch another win tonight. Suffice it to say that the Lakers will have to bring their A game if they are to slow down the league’s best one-two punch.
Frontcourt: The reigning MVP, Kevin Durant, brings an unmatched skillset to the small forward position. And while he hasn’t fully regained his MVP form since returning from injury, he is still as deadly a player as they come. He is a four time scoring champion that can score the ball every which way, from pull up jumpers out to the three point line to driving dunks. His array of scoring moves was on full display yesterday as he had 30 points by halftime, but had to sit out the rest of the game after tweaking his right ankle. He has a tight handle for his size and has become a great passer, averaging a career best 5.5 assists a game last season. Durant is expected to give it a go tonight and will be an impossible cover. The Lakers will simply have to make things as difficult as they can for him since he’ll be on the court plenty as he is no longer on a minutes restriction.
Serge Ibaka is the third banana out of the Thunder’s core guys. He has taken big strides on the offensive end, but it has become clear that he is best suited as a third option offensively. When Durant and Westbrook missed time, Ibaka didn’t exactly step up to the plate as his team’s first option. However, he is a proven third option as a great finisher that also has the ability to knock down open shots as far out as the three point line this season. In fact, he is averaging 3.4 three point attempts a game, which eclipses his previous career high of 0.7 attempts per game. On defense, he has been a game-changing presence as usual. He currently sits at third in the league in blocks with an average of 2.3. Steven Adams starts at center for the Thunder. He is much improved this year and is deservedly the starter over Kendrick Perkins. He has averaged 7.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks through the early part of the season.
Backcourt: The other half of the fearsome Thunder one-two punch is Russell Westbrook. He has played like a legitimate MVP candidate, averaging a ludicrous 26.9 points in just 30.5 minutes per game. Throw in averages of nearly seven dimes and six boards and you have a stat line from out of a video game. He is also shooting 47.8 percent from the field, which would be a career best by a wide margin, but that should inch closer to his career average over the course of the season. He has been nothing but sensational all year and will simply be a nightmare matchup for the Lakers tonight.
Andre Roberson gets the start at off-guard as he brings a defensive skillset to the table. A former Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Roberson is content with doing the little things on the defensive side of the ball. He fits in with the first unit as he doesn’t require plays to be run for him and will defend and rebound. He is excellent on the glass, averaging 5.3 a game in limited minutes. Reggie Jackson is the main reserve guard and is a very capable young player. Like Eric Bledsoe or Darren Collison before him, Jackson is simply stuck behind an all-world caliber lead guard. That said, Jackson is far more than a second string quality player and he will cause problems for the Lakers’ second unit when he checks into the game.
Keys to Victory:
Limit the Playmaking of Westbrook and Durant:
If the Lakers have any hope of keeping the game competitive, they will have to contain the Thunder’s star players. This is a tall task as both players are impossible to defend one on one. Still, the Lakers should try to limit early double teams and hope that Westbrook and Durant have some struggles shooting the ball. The worst thing that can happen is to allow these guys to get into the paint and make plays as the Thunder offense really gets rolling when everyone is involved.
Get Good Shots for Kobe:
Kobe Bryant’s poor shooting efficiency has been a subject of discussion throughout this season and it has especially been highlighted recently as he is shooting a miserable 34.5 percent from the field in his last five games. Despite the Lakers winning three out of those five games, a poor offensive performance from Bryant against a clicking Thunder squad will likely end with him and the starters watching from the bench in the fourth quarter.
The Thunder are a terrific rebounding team, as they own a rebounding differential of 3.3 rebounds per game, which is good for third in the league. On the other hand, the Lakers sit at 27th in the league at -3.3. In order to keep this game close, the Lakers will need to flip the script and really battle for rebounds. Jordan Hill and Ed Davis cannot allow themselves to be pushed around by Ibaka or Adams in the paint and the Lakers guards will have to keep Westbrook out on the perimeter to keep him from soaring in for the boards himself.
Heading into tonight’s game, the Lakers are 6.5-point underdogs against the Thunder according to Sportsbook.ag.
Los Angeles Lakers (8-17) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (12-14)
7:30 PM PST, December 19, 2014
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: ESPN / TWC SportsNet
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Thunder Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Andre Roberson
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Steven Adams
Key Reserves: PG: Reggie Jackson, SG: Anthony Morrow, C: Kendrick Perkins
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Ronnie Price
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Wesley Johnson
PF: Ed Davis
C: Jordan Hill
Lakers 5 on 5 Scrimmage Practice Featuring Mark ‘Mad dog’ Madsen