Lakers/Thunder: A-Z Preview
To preview the Round 2 playoff matchup between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City, we used each letter of the alphabet to highlight some of the more intriguing elements to the series:
Alpha Dog - The most alpha of NBA alpha males since MJ, Kobe Bryant leaves no question mark about whose team it is in L.A. For OKC, it's less clear, even with Kevin Durant winning a third straight scoring title (barely edging 16-year-vet Kobe on the last day of the season) and finishing second in MVP balloting. This because Russell Westbrook is a "bad boy," as Bryant might say, the enormous chip on his shoulder producing an unfiltered aggression on the floor that often fuels the Thunder's plane. But does it really matter if Durant or Westbrook wears the "A" on their chest?
Back-to-Back - One result of the compressed season is that the NBA had to shorten the second round of the playoffs from a scheduling standpoint, which as it turns out means LAL and OKC will have to play a back-to-back on Friday/Saturday in L.A. for Games 3 and 4. This would tend to favor the younger, more athletic team, but there are no excuses for teams looking only to be champions.
Choctaw - Did you know that the Sooner State is named after the Choctaw words "okla" and "humma," which mean "red people" according to "Chronicles of Oklahoma." Now you do.
Double Teams - How will the Thunder defend Bynum and Gasol? Denver absolutely blitzed Bynum, which tempered his output on O (he still managed 16.7 ppg on 51.2% FG's) but opened the floor up for LAL's role players. OKC boasts Kendrick Perkins* inside, thought by many to be the NBA's best 1-on-1 low post defender, but will they leave Bynum to the snarly one? Will Serge Ibaka guard his Spanish National Team captain Gasol by himself? Will Thabo Sefolosha cover Kobe mano-a-mano? Chances are we'll see a bit of everything as the series goes on, adjustments being made on both sides, but one would expect the Thunder to utilize double teams far less than Denver did thanks to superior defensive personnel. *Perkins comes in as a "game time decision" with a right hip muscle strain that occurred in Game 4 at Dallas (May 5). He did participate in limited practice for OKC on Saturday, doing some running and shooting but little contact drills with teammates.
Elbow - Metta World Peace concussed James Harden with an elbow in the April 22nd's LAL – OKC matchup, and whether or not you found it intentional, accidental or simply reckless, it happened. MWP subsequently served a 7-game suspension from which he returned just in time to make a huge contribution to LAL's Game 7 win over Denver. LAL's failure to close the Nuggets out in Games 5 and 6, in this case, assured that MWP would start Round 2 on Kevin Durant, where his outstanding defense will be more than needed.
Fish - Did it surprise anyone in L.A. that after really struggling with his shot and numbers (5.1 ppg on 36.3% FG's in April), Derek Fisher drained 58.3% FG's in Round 1, including 62.5% of his 3's, towards 8.3 ppg off the bench? Kobe said it's literally going to be like playing against his brother … though the kind of brother you fight until mom and dad rip one or the other off.
Glass - Rebounding the basketball could decide the whole series. As the OCR's Kevin Ding pointed out, OKC lost 14 of the 19 games in which they were out-boarded, including a 67-54 Lakers edge in the double OT LAL win.
Home Court - For the first time since the 2008 NBA Finals against Boston, the Lakers don't have it, OKC finishing six games ahead of L.A. in the regular season. In completely unrelated news you should know, Ramon Sessions listens to T.I.'s "Paper Trail" album all the time before games, while eating a Snickers bar.
"Insanely" - That's the word Kobe Bryant used to describe Steve Blake's competitive nature after his massive 19-point (5-of-6 from 3) Game 7 against Denver. In Game 1, the Final 4 champ at Maryland had three first quarter 3's to set the tone, plus the dagger triple in Game 4, which had him looking a lot like Derek Fisher. Blake's really a tough dude; if Kobe's calling YOU insanely competitive, that sorta says it all. It's like Don Draper calling YOU cool.
Jordan - Having already invoked His Airness once, why not offer his playoff comparables to the kid that used to idolize him.
Jordan: 33.4 ppg (5,987 total), 6.4 rpg, 5.7 apg, 41.5 mpg, 48.7% FG's, 82.8% FT's, 30.2% 3's.
Bryant: 25.5 ppg (5,484 total), 5.1 rpg, 4.8 apg, 40.3 mpg, 44.8% FG's, 81.5% FT's, 33.6% 3's.
Bryant's numbers are definitely hurt by his first two playoff seasons, in which he played very little to average around 8 ppg, 1.5 rpg and 1.3 apg as a teenager while Jordan was ripping off huge numbers at ages 21 and 22, scoring 43.7 ppg in a Round 1 loss in 1985-86 (Jordan's lowest postseason ppg was 29.3 in his rookie year). Only Jordan (109) has more than Bryant's 85 career 30+ point playoff games, and Bryant leads all players in NBA history in total playoff minutes. He just passed MJ in career playoff assists to rank seventh, and could pass Scottie Pippen (1,048) with 24 assists vs. OKC.
KD - Durant went for 26.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg and 3.8 apg in a 4-0 sweep of Dallas, on 45.5% FG's. But the Washington D.C. native shot worse in the regular season against World Peace and the Lakers (42.3%) than any other Western team except for Phoenix (41.4%). Durant is a much better all-around player than he was when 2010 Ron Artest held him to just 35% shooting in LAL's 4-2 First Round win, but would you want MWP trying to wear your uniform for a whole series?
Leuzinger - Westbrook's high school in Lawndale, Calif., not too far away from Artesia High School, which produced Harden. Oh the irony of Los Angeles producing an All-Star and the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, only to use them against the Lakers!
Mangy - Adj.: shabby; rundown and filthy, squalid. That's one way to describe Harden's ridiculous beard ("awesome" is another, of course). No matter what's on his face, he was terrific all season, scoring 16.8 ppg plus 3.7 apg, and boosting his production up to 18.3 ppg with 5.5 rpg and 4.3 apg on an efficient 50% FG's, plus 7.8 FTA vs. Dallas. Harden is a terror in the pick and roll, and may be OKC's best playmaker late in games, as he can shoot the long ball, drive to get fouled or set up teammates (think Manu Ginobili). He could be the biggest X-Factor in the series.
National Memorial - The Oklahoma City National Memorial in downtown OKC serves as a moving tribute to honor all those affected by the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people. It's a sobering experience, always helping to put sports in perspective when traveling to Oklahoma City.
Orange - Just a simple question: why is orange a part of the OKC color scheme? Sure, it's only an accent to the white, blue and black … but what's the last NBA team to win a title that had orange on its uniform, anyway? The Knicks in 1973, right?
Power - You'd think that "power" would be a good way to describe Bynum, Perkins or even Ibaka in this matchup, but the explosion that goes off in Westbrook's legs may be the most powerful element either team has. He can get from the free throw line to the rim faster than a ball of knotted up weeds whisks through downtown OKC with the constant wind (trust me), and is especially brutal to contend with in transition. Only four other players in the past 10 years averaged at least 19 points, six assists and four boards per game (Chris Paul, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Steve Francis), so corralling Westbrook's powerful legs is easer said than done.
Quip - Bryant had a little joke for George Karl after L.A. held on to beat Denver in Game 7, telling the Nuggs coach – who's never beaten Kobe in the playoffs – that he didn't have to double-team him so much in Game 7 since Bryant is so old. Karl's basic response: B.S. Bryant led all playoff performers in scoring in Round 1, going for 29.1 ppg plus his 5.0 apg (to lead the Lakers), 4.6 rpg and 1.14 spg on 44.8% FG's. He certainly looks healthier than he did last playoff campaign, when his knee in particular was breaking down all season and especially in the postseason. He'll need to be the Black Mamba in this series.
Route 66 - The famous highway that originally ran from Chicago all the way to Los Angeles featured a major stop at Oklahoma City particularly in the early part of the 20th century, and covered a total of 2,451 miles before being removed from the U.S. Highway System in 1985. If you wanted to come to OKC for Game 1 and couldn't fly, it'd take you about 22 hours to drive, mostly on I-40.
Spaniard - After perhaps the worst performance of his All-Star career in Game 6 at Denver (3 points, 3 rebounds), Gasol came up as big as Maximus in "Gladiator" (you forgot they called him "Spaniard," didn't you?) in Game 7, exploding for 23 points, 17 rebounds (11 offensive, at least four on one possession) six assists and four blocks, just the fifth Laker in franchise history to hit those marks (Elgin, Shaq, Wilt and Kareem). He'll be charged with sustaining his A game if LAL are to win the series.
Triples - Three-point shooting won't decide the series, but it can certainly swing a few games, bringing OKC's 35.8% and LAL's 32.6% regular season connection rate into question. While Thabo Sefolosha (43.7%) is the only Thunder player over 40%, he sank less than one per game, making Durant's 38.7% far more dangerous as he connected on 2.0 of his 5.2 3PA's. Harden wasn't far behind, making 1.8 of his 4.7 long-distance flings (39.0%), and neither is shy about rising in transition or in the half court. LAL don't like to shoot as much from distance, taking nearly 4 fewer 3PA's per game than OKC's 20, but did get some important deep shot making from Steve Blake (46.7%, 5 of 6 in Game 7) and Metta World Peace (4 of 11, 36.4% in Game 7), which will be important to keep OKC defenders honest. Related: Bryant has made the third most postseason triples in NBA history, and made a respectable 35.7% in Round 1 despite taking several tough, contested bombs.
Ubuntu - Can the Lakers find the kind of unity and togetherness that comes from the Bantu languages of southern Africa, popularized by the 2008 Celtics? It's always a tall task to maintain championship chemistry year after year with personalities so different as make up L.A.'s squad, but also so very necessary to success. OKC is the team – sans Fisher, of course – without any championships, the younger, and in some cases hungrier squad (don't tell that to Kobe, as he seeks a sixth title like Kim and Kanye covet a STAPLES Center photo op). We'll see who vibes better.
Vitriol - The sound you'll tangibly hear coming from the OKC faithful when "Starting at forward for the Lakers, 6-7, Metta World Peace" comes over the loudspeakers.
Weak Side D - Nobody in the NBA blocked more shots than the Thunder in 2011-12, led by the length and athleticism of Ibaka, who led the NBA individually with 3.65 swats per evening, many of them coming as he flew in to protect the rim from the weak side. Ibaka blocked 3.25 of OKC's 7.25 in Round 1, but Bynum swatted even more, going for 4.0 per night, thanks largely to a 10-block Game 1 and 6-block Game 7. When properly plugged in on D, Bynum can do that every night. And it's not just the blocks, but the constant energy and attention it takes to be great on D from pick and roll rotations to rim protection and shot contesting inside and out that will be of paramount importance for Bynum, and thus for the Lakers. The 7-footer vowed to focus on D against OKC — which wasn't consistent vs. Denver – after his Game 7 performance.
X-Files - Have you heard the rumor that the hotel visiting teams most often stay in when traveling to OKC is haunted? Well, this guy has stayed here for four seasons now and only seen two ghosts, one goblin and one vision of a small child standing in suspended air outside the window. So I think we're good.
Yikes! - What Mike Brown will be saying if LAL put the NBA's top FT shooting team (80.6%) at the charity stripe. Durant, Westbrook and Harden combine to attempt a whopping 19.9 FT's per night, more meaningful because they all shoot at least 82%. That said, L.A. took only two fewer FTA's per game, with Kobe/Bynum/Gasol combining to take 17.4, if making fewer (Bynum at 69%, but 75% after the All-Star break).
Zen Master - As Lakers VP Jeanie Buss relayed on 710 ESPN's "Mason and Ireland" show last week, Phil Jackson often used to say that winning a Game 7 can be the ultimate galvanizing force for a team, a moment of unity towards the same cause in which maximum effort is used and from which momentum can be gained. Can L.A. bottle up the energy, especially on D, that they called upon to beat Denver? That simple question may decide the Round 2 series.