Western Conference Semi-Finals Preview: Lakers Face the Thunder

The first round of the Western Conference playoffs is over for the Lakers. They finally defeated the Denver Nuggets in seven games. Once again the Lakers were a tale of two teams, but they were able to get the job done. The Lakers are one series closer to capturing the Larry O’Brien trophy and are just twelve more wins away from winning their seventeenth title.

The second round begins on Monday night on the road, as they face their second round series opponents, the Oklahoma City Thunder. This series will be a tremendous challenge for the Lakers and will push them to their limit. The Thunder made the defending champions, the Dallas Mavericks, look their age, especially on the road. The Thunder are favorites to win the west, and a lot say it all, while the Lakers are in unfamiliar territory as underdogs in the playoffs. The next stage will test the Lakers and the following areas needs to be analyzed.

Areas of Focus

Use the Strength of the Frontcout: The Lakers’ offense is at its best when it is runs inside out. Fans and analysts are well aware of this, yet the Lakers fall away from this philosophy far too often. Andrew Bynum showed how he has the ability to dictate a game during the first round if he gives his full effort and focus. Pau Gasol struggled to make an impact in every game of the first round and was too quite against Denver in my opinion for the first six games. In Game 7 Gasol was strong and played with passion and intensity, which is something that must continue against Oklahoma City.

Kobe will continue to be Kobe in the playoffs and Metta World Peace will still be fresh and will have something to prove. Therefore, I expect the frontcourt of Bynum, Gasol and World Peace to make the largest impact in this series. Not only on the offensive end, but on the defensive end as well. Yes, the Thunder have solid defenders in their frontcourt with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, but when the Lakers’ frontcourt players are sharp and focused, they simply cannot be matched.

Defense: One of the biggest advantages in this round compared to the last round is the presence of Metta World Peace in the lineup for the entire series. There will be an increased amount of intensity in the air since World Peace’s suspension came in the game against Oklahoma City. The key is not getting distracted by this, especially on the road, but using it to their advantage. World Peace’s defense is going to be essential against Kevin Durant and limiting his game. World Peace’s presence on the defensive end led the Lakers to force the Nuggets to commit 19 turnovers in Game 7.

I also expect to see Kobe Bryant switch on defense to cover Russell Westbrook. Taking Westbrook out of the game and making him force long jumpers instead of getting into the lane is going to be key to minimizing their offense. Westbrook has a tendency to control the ball and take long jumpers. Let him do this, just make sure he has a hand in his face the entire game. Finally, the Lakers must defend the pick-and-roll, not fall for the switch, and shrink the court for Oklahoma City.

Rebound Battle: This is a strong area for the Lakers and it should be considering they have two seven-footers leading the frontcourt. Despite their success with rebounding during the regular season, the Lakers struggled to beat Denver on the glass consistently. This was especially true on the offensive glass, where the Lakers gave away too many opportunities for second-chance points to the Nuggets.

Like Denver, the Thunder are a fast, transition team. Therefore, cleaning up on the glass will be necessary to prevent them from getting out on the break and to control the tempo of the game. This means extra effort by Bynum, Gasol and Jordan Hill.

Turnovers: The Lakers in no doubt had trouble controlling the ball during the regular season. Overall, they are averaging 15.1 turnovers per game, which is tied for nineteenth in the league. This trend continued during the Nuggets series, as the Lakers gave up 12 turnovers per game, while forcing 11.1 per game. Doesn’t sound like much of a difference, right? Yet, think about how many time the Lakers carelessly turned the ball over and the Nuggets were able to covert with transition offense. Along with the lack of winning the rebound  battle, the Lakers’ turnovers was one of the main culprits that led to fast break points, easy opportunities, points in the paints and loosing control of the pace of the game.

Play with Urgency: The playoffs are all about a “win or go home” mentality and approach.  Any Laker fan knows that the Lakers struggled with playing with this attitude and approach at a consistent level during the regular season. The Lakers showcased times of little effort and passion during the first round against Denver. However, when they play with effort and passion, they raise their performance to a completely higher level. Going against a young, talented and fast team like Oklahoma City will be a challenge for the Lakers to control. Therefore, the Lakers must play with passion, intensity and urgency in all 48 minutes of each game in order to have success.

Bench Play: As I wrote in my playoff preview, the Lakers’ bench has struggled this season and is the worst in the league. This, of course, we all know. The bench’s contribution can make or break a team during the postseason. In the first round, the Lakers’ bench was challenged to perform by Denver’s bench, which was one of the best benches in the league this season. Once again, the bench lacked consistency. In this series, the Lakers face a solid bench led by the newly crowned Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden. The bench must keep up in this series and consistently perform as they did in Games 1, 4 and 7 of the previous round. Look for Steve Blake to continue his improved contribution off the bench against Oklahoma City.

Monday night marks the beginning of the second round for the Lakers. They will be facing tougher opponents who are fighting to prove their odds right. This series matches up experience versus youth, with both teams loaded with talent.

This will certainly be a very entertaining series to watch, as the underdogs go against the favorites.

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