By Charley Rosen, for NBA.com
Posted May 14 2012 2:56AM
This promises to be a star-spangled, thrill-a-minute series. Most likely the most competitive of all the conference semifinals, the confrontation between the Lakers and the Thunder showcases several All-Star matchups, as well as contrasting gameplans and motivations. L.A. is out to reestablish its position at the top of the league, while OKC looks to initiate a new dynasty.
Kobe Bryant is, of course, the most dynamic and reliable clutch player in the game. However, Kobe's perimeter shooting has been somewhat iffy this season and he has been scoring most of his points off the bounce. If his long-range guns are on-target, OKC's defense will be stretched to the breaking point -- leaving the middle open for L.A.'s bigs to wreak havoc. Kobe also has to refrain from being hypnotized by the ball while playing weakside defense. Whether Bryant's shots are missing or failing, he will be hounded by the long-armed, earnest defense of Thabo Sefolosha, one of the best wing defenders in the NBA.
Andrew Bynum has blossomed into an All-Star. His drop-steps, reverse pivots, and jump hooks have made him a dreadnaught scorer in the low post. If quick double-teams still flummox him after he's put the ball on the floor, Bynum has at least become proficient at making the simplest of out-passes. The Thunder, though, present a different set of problems for the young man. Kendrick Perkins has the size, the strength, and the know-how to control Bynum one-on-one. And lurking on the weakside is the NBA's leading shot-blocker, Serge Ibaka. Bynum has to accurately read the defenses and avoid trying to force his dribble through heavy traffic. On defense, Bynum can't afford to loaf in transition, must avoid turning his head to watch the ball, has to make timely baseline rotations, plus he also has to provide more help on high screen-and-rolls than he has in the past.
Instead of simply stationing Bynum in the pivot, L.A. must resort to a more sophisticated way of getting him the ball down there: A seldom used procedure in which he sets a high screen for Kobe, and quickly dives into the left box while a strong-side wing man relays the ball from Bryant to Bynum. In this sequence Bynum winds up with terrific position and makes two-timing him extremely difficult.
Pau Gasol doesn't post much under Mike Brown, yet remains a significant force on offense because of his passwork, intelligence, and versatility. Matched against the bouncy defense of Ibaka, however, Gasol will need to exhibit all of his considerable wiles to keep his shots from being blocked. Fortunately for L.A., one of Gasol's assets coincides with one of Ibaka's most glaring defensive flaws -- the former's convincing head- and ball-fakes and the latter's penchant for leaving his feet in his eagerness to swat shots.
Both Bynum and Gasol have to control the glass at both ends.
Ramon Sessions has the difficult assignment of guarding Russell Westbrook. While Sessions will selectively up-tempo the Lakers' habitual stodgy pace, there's no way he can keep up with the quick-as-a-wish Westbrook. If Sessions shoots only when he must, and is a terrific end-game scorer, he is frequently beaten off the dribble on defense. This last shortcoming will put enormous pressure on L.A.'s bigs as Westbrook will repeatedly zip the ball into the lane. Look for Sessions to give Westbrook room to shoot and play him exclusively for the drive.
The primary responsibility of Metta World Peace will be to be as physical in defense of Kevin Durant as the law allows. In fact, MWP's defense could easily be the primary reason why the Lakers either win or lose the series. Every bucket that MWP scores (especially from beyond the arc) will be a somewhat unexpected bonus.
Matt Barnes is a belligerently energetic defender who will get some time opposite KD and James Harden. Since L.A. tends to shoot blanks from behind the arc, Barnes must also bag a few treys.
Steve Blake was never comfortable in the triangle offense, but has settled in nicely in Brown's more traditional gameplan. A scrappy defender and a clutch shooter, Blake has to bring his A-game.
With Barnes, Blake, Jordan Hill, and Troy Murphy comprising the bulk of L.A.'s bench, a jolt of scoring prowess is sorely missing. This means more daylight for the seven rotational players, which makes fatigue a serious factor.
The Lakers like to switch in defense of high screen-and-rolls and the resulting mismatches can be damaging in the absence of timely baseline rotations. More pressure on Bynum and Gasol.
Even with the occasional fast breaks ignited by Sessions, the Lakers want to play half-court offense to maximize the considerable size, length, and skills of Gasol and Bynum. They must show restraint to avoid trying to run with the Thunder. Indeed, the Lakers can only win if they successfully impose their pace on the series.
If Durant can connect on his long-distance dialing, he'll be able to take advantage of MWP's chest-to-chest defense by driving the ball into the lane. Quick decisions and quick moves are the keys to make the most of his super-quick shot release. Plus, in general he has to avoid being intimidated by MWP's ornery defensive tactics.
The onus is on Westbrook to limit his too-quick jumpers, his over-penetrations that lead to forced shots and turnover-passes, and his ignoring of Durant. Westbrook is both a point- and a turnover-machine. His defense is adequate and won't be severely tested by Sessions, yet he often hurts himself by foolishly reaching for steals. Patience and maturity have never been in Westbrook's personal gameplan, but it's now or never.
Perkins gets to bang bodies, shoulders, hips, and elbows with Bynum. Can he do so without getting into early foul trouble? One way to limit his fouls is to refrain from setting the moving screens that he favors. And hitting an occasional jump shot and jump hook would also greatly benefit OKC's chances. But Perkins does have difficulty guarding opponents who can turn, face, and go -- which makes it unlikely that he'll be asked to play opposite Gasol.
Ibaka has to differentiate between shots that can be blocked, those that can be intimidated, and those that can only be waved at. He has wonderful defensive range but must avoid being sucked out of position in his over-zealousness to swat shots , and also to gamble in trying to intercept entry passes. Moreover, Ibaka has to hit his available jumpers and do his part in denyhing L.A. mastery of the glass.
Sefolosha's main task is defending Kobe, yet dropping an occasional 3-ball is also part of his job description.
Nick Collison provides aggressive if undersized defense. As such, he can bother Gasol if he can avoid fouls.
Derek Fisher brings clutch shooting and good decision-making. Perhaps his championship-hardened maturity can have a beneficial effect on Westbrook.
Harden represents OKC's not-so-secret weapon off the bench. This guy can drive, shoot, and even play surprisingly powerful defense. Who can guard him? World Peace lacks the lateral quickness. Blake doesn't have the strength. And Harden's ability to draw fouls would put Kobe at great risk. Indeed, look for Harden to be the difference-maker in the series.
With Perkins on the bench, the Thunder field the quickest team in the league. Controlling their defensive glass will allow them to get their devastating running game in gear. In fact, rebounding will be the most single most critical factor in the series.
OKC will also try to amp up the tempo by pressuring the ball and ambushing the passing lanes on defense.
Their bigs must do a better job than usual in helping to defend pin-down screens and the resulting curls into the middle.
Look for the Thunder to involve Bynum in as many high screen-and-rolls as possible, exploiting his reluctance to commit to help so far from the rim.
When Durant posts up, there needs to be more player movement, i.e., dive-cuts and fans.
In general, OKC will survive into the conference finals only by perpetually hustling, running, and imposing their will on the Lakers.
1) Because of the Lakers' dominant bigs and inferior perimeter shooting, look for OKC to play various zone configurations.
2) Considering his history of loafing and pouting when he doesn't get as many touches as he thinks he should, will Bynum come to play every minute of every game?
3) Early on, Kobe gets the ball after running off various combinations of weakside screens. But in the clutch, he's presented with a single high-screen, handoff situations, or he simply resorts to isos.
4) Will MWP be on the court in endgames? Or will Brown go with the Kobe-Sessions-Blake backcourt that was so successful in the Denver series?:
5) Can any of the Thunder match Kobe's super-intense competitive edge? And might his failure to do so be Durant's undoing?
Charley Rosen is a former pro basketball player and coach and author of 16 books on basketball.
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