By Scott Howard-Cooper, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 14 2010 3:32PM
The potential for an exciting series is matched by the strange way the series has arrived, with the Lakers tripping over the regular-season finish line as Kobe Bryant struggles with injuries and the Thunder going from a 2009-10 of amazing growth to a reality check of a late slump.
Clearly this is not the way either hoped to enter the playoffs.
But there are still nonstop storylines and rich contrasts that will unfold if this series turns into something more than a brief Lakers wake-up call: Bryant against Kevin Durant in a glamour showdown of superstars, Russell Westbrook against Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar in the latest test of the Lakers' ability to handle speedy point guards, Los Angeles playoff experience against Oklahoma City inexperience, and even Los Angeles against Oklahoma City in the cultural subplot. Someone will go there.
1. How healthy is Kobe? Not very. He just sat two games because of swelling in the right knee, came back for one, then skipped the final two contests of the regular season because a broken finger on his shooting hand, despite his own concerns of getting rusty.
2. And how is Andrew Bynum's health, while we're at it? See above, only with Bynum out since straining his left Achilles' tendon on March 19.
3. What happened in the season series? Lakers 3-1, with two close L.A. victories and one blowout win, although all were before Christmas. The Thunder won easily March 26.
4. Are the young Thunder doomed without being able to feed off a home crowd for at least three of the first five games? No. Oklahoma City plays with uncommon composure on the road for an inexperienced group.
5. Other than the obvious -- Durant -- what else is a pressing concern for the Lakers? The Thunder are very good on the offensive boards, creating the second-chance baskets that help keep them in a lot of games even when their shot isn't falling.
While this may be a banged-up Bryant, it's still Bryant, and that's a problem for the Thunder. The offense goes through him, of course, with Pau Gasol also in a starring role. Not having a dependable third scoring option, pending Bynum's return to health, is the problem for the Lakers.
Thabo Sefolosha, underrated as an important part of the Oklahoma City fast-track development, will be on Bryant, or at least be the first wave. The Thunder drills defense more than anything, so they will be ready. Good enough ... who knows? But ready, for sure.
Oklahoma City will push the tempo, not what the Lakers want to see with Bryant trying to play through a bad knee and Bynum perhaps returning from an Achilles' problem. More troublesome than that, Durant is an incredible moving target, scoring from anywhere and getting to the line. If he gets Artest into foul trouble and Bryant is kept busy on Westbrook, things could turn very interesting.
The Lakers can, and probably will, throw a lot of different looks at Durant, from the strength of Artest to the size of Lamar Odom to double teams. But this is all about Artest. The Lakers signed him to be a difference maker on defense. Time to make a difference.
It's still Bryant and his killer instincts, even if coach Phil Jackson did go to Gasol for the final shot Sunday against the Trail Blazers. (Bryant to L.A. reporters after: "That was interesting. [Jackson] just drew it up. I just cracked up.") If Kobe gets the ball with the game on the line, maybe all Oklahoma City runs at him, and not merely the Oklahoma City basketball team.
Last second, game on the line, the choice is just as obvious for the Thunder. Durant gets the ball with the ability to shoot over most guards or get to the rim for a potential basket or trip to the line. That means one of the Lakers bigs helps Artest.
Beyond the pressing injury issues, the Lakers are sleepwalking, unfocused even as the playoffs arrive. This is not so pressing. They spent a couple rounds wandering a year ago and not only survived but recovered all the way to the championship. They're a travelling circus, but the concerns anout their health are much greater than the concern on their mental approach.
While Jackson has more titles as a coach than anyone, Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks is in the No. 1 chair for the first time in the playoffs. Figure the Thunder will care not at all. Even with a disappointing finish to the regular season, they're focused and grounded. It's the rest of the town that may blow the lid off the Ford Center in the first home playoff games in the brief team history.
Storylines and contrasts are fun, but talent, depth and experience takes over at some point. Lakers in 6.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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