The Western Conference semi-finals begin tonight in Oklahoma City, as the Thunder host the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s a series of contrasts, as OkC swept Dallas home in the first round and has been resting since May 5. LA, on the other hand, had Denver on the ropes, failed to finish them off and got pushed to a seven-game series that ended Saturday night. So can the presumably tired veteran team match up with the fresh young team? TheSportsNotebook previews the series…
If Los Angeles is going to win this series, both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are going to have to come out to play like they did in Game 7. Bynum blocked six shots and hauled in 18 rebounds, while Gasol scored 23 points and grabbed 17 boards. And they did this against a Denver team that had matched up with them on the glass all series, and rebounded well all season. Oklahoma City is no pushover in the post—not with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka—but when it comes to matchup edges, there’s none bigger for the Lakers than right here and Bynum and Gasol have to make it happen.
Oklahoma City’s advantage comes on the perimeter, so long as we extend that to include the small forward spot. Kevin Durant, TheSportsNotebook’s choice for the MVP award that went to LeBron over the weekend, plays from the outside, so that’s a fair comparison and when you couple him with Russell Westbrook and James Harden off the bench, the Thunder are potent here, and it really doesn’t matter if Kobe Bryant hangs 40 a night, his team is going to be overmatched outside. It makes you understand why Ron Artest threw a cheap elbow at James Harden. Okay, not really, but you get how big of an edge OkC has here (And I’m no longer dignifying Artest by calling him “Metta World Peace” anymore. I have all year, figuring the man legally changed his name, so even if it was self-aggrandizing I’d honor that. But to first call yourself the Man of World Peace, then hurl a cheap shot is too much. He’s back to being Artest).
Can either team do anything to mitigate the other’s edges? Oklahoma City will need a strong rebounding series from Perkins. He only played well in two of the four games against Dallas and needs to be good for 8-9 boards a night here. Ibaka is an even bigger factor. One of the few inside players in the NBA who can block shots like Bynum and acknowledged as one of the top five defenders in the game, Ibaka can make life miserable for Los Angeles if they try dribble-penetration.
This brings us to the guards. Ramon Sessions is the man LA acquired to run its offense midway through the year and for the first six games of the Denver series he was consistent in scoring 10-15 ppg and distributing the ball. But he disappeared in Game 7 and from a defensive standpoint, he’s completely mismatched by Westbrook, who’s not far behind Durant when it comes to scoring proficiency. Artest can match up with one of the two scorers on the defensive end, something the Lakers lacked for the first six games of the Denver series while he was on suspension. But while we acknowledge Artest’s defensive skills, he’s not so good that he’s going to wipe out Durant or Westbrook. He can just slow them up a bit and make them work harder, and in either case, there’s still no one to match up on the player he doesn’t guard. Sessions won’t stop either one and Kobe certainly won’t. Oh, and we’ve forgotten Harden off the bench, who churned out 29 points in clinching situation on the road at Dallas.
The basic personnel outline gives Oklahoma City an edge, but nothing that a veteran team with a championship pedigree like Los Angeles can’t overcome. Where the Thunder can make this series a mismatch is by controlling pace—specifically, turning these games into a track meet. Even under the best of circumstances, the Lakers are not deep enough to keep up with the young Thunder and given the disparities in rest, these are actually the worst of circumstances. And then we go into the fact that a 94-foot game by definition favors the perimeter team over the frontcourt team.
Finally we come to the big factor in every NBA playoff series and its star on star. Both Durant and Kobe are pure scorers, in the sense that neither one is likely to rack up 10 assists. With Kobe, the Lakers played their best games against Denver when he wasn’t shooting all the time. That could be a sign of him needing to not play ballhog, or a sign of Bynum and Gasol needing to make themselves available so the star doesn’t feel the need to do it himself—and my guess is that it’s a mix of both. Bryant scored 43 points in a Game 5 loss where the big men might as well have sat next to Jack Nicholson in the stands. He scored 17 and had 8 assists in Game 7 where they both came to play. In the case of Durant, while I’m not suggesting he be a ballhog, he does need to be in the 25-30 point range for his team to win and he’s probably going to need one Jordan-esque game where he puts the team on his shoulders.
I liked what I saw from Oklahoma City in the first round, especially the way they seized the moment on the road and the way Durant scored 31 in the Game 3 win that was the knockout blow. The presence of Bryant and the Lakers’ championship pedigree deserves respect, but those same assets didn’t stop them from getting swept home by Dallas last year, nor did they stop them from blowing two straight clinching spots against Denver. The guess here is that Los Angeles has enough to make these games close and enough that if it gets to a Game 6, I’d never go against them at home. But do they have enough to win one in Oklahoma City and defend their home floor without exception? I don’t see that. The Thunder win two at home, steal one in Staples and then clinch in five.