Three Things to Know

Lakers vs. Thunder: Three Things to Know (8/5/20)

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

Up next for the Lakers as their seeding games continue is a Wednesday matchup with Oklahoma City, whom the Lakers have beaten all three times they’ve played this season, including twice in Oklahoma. Below are three things you need to know ahead of the tip:

Clinching the No. 1 overall seed was all but a given before the seeding games began, since L.A. had built a 5.5-game lead. When they beat the Clippers in the first game, it was settled for good … well … OK, technically, it wasn’t settled for good until they beat Utah, but you get it. This is the 12th time the Lakers have secured the West’s top seed since 1984. They went on to win titles in six of those seasons.

So, the Lakers know they’ll be opening the postseason on August 17 against the No. 8 seed, but you’ll have to take your best guess about whom their opponent will be in a wide open race that currently looks like this:

8) Memphis: 32-36, 0-3 in the Bubble
9) Portland: 31-38, 1.5 games back, 2-1
10) San Antonio: 29-37, 2 games back, 2-1
11) New Orleans: 29-38, 2.5 games back, 1-2
12) Phoenix: 29-39, 3 games back, 3-0
13) Sacramento: 28-39, 3.5 games back, 0-3

What we know after three games from each of these teams is that there will very, very likely be a play-in mini tournament between the teams that finish 8th and 9th, because the 8th-place team will not have a 4-game lead over 9th. Remember that 8th has to beat 9th just once, and 9th has to beat 8th twice. Sacramento is the one team that can likely be counted out at this point, though they’re mathematically alive, while Memphis just lost starting power forward Jaren Jackson, Jr. for the season, and has a difficult schedule for their final five games. New Orleans has the easiest on-paper schedule, while Portland’s is a bit tougher than that of San Antonio and Phoenix. That said, the Blazers are the most healthy of the bunch, and have the best player in Damian Lillard, leaving many to think they’ll find a way into that play-in game. But the larger point is simple, to reiterate: it’s WIDE open.

The most notable difference from the 49-14 Lakers before the hiatus, and the 2-1 Lakers in the seeding games has been a slow-starting offense. Coach Frank Vogel is always going to prioritize defense, and the receipts on that end have been very good. So the fact that L.A. is struggling to convert open shots isn’t much of a concern, with the assumption being that they’ll start falling as guys get their game legs back.

The starting lineup in particular hasn’t been converting on open 3’s, and Vogel thinks part of the reason is the starters aren’t playing with their typical pace. That can and will be addressed, but in the meantime, it’s been the bench group with Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Dion Waiters plus either Anthony Davis or LeBron and one of the starting wings (Danny Green or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) that have shined. They’ve played well on both ends, and the offense in particular has been more fluid with those groups. Tinkering with the rotation will continue in the remaining five seeding games as the Lakers get ready for when things count.

The small, point-guard loaded OKC lineup of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams has a net rating of 29.9 this season*, by far the best mark in the NBA of any 5-man unit. For comparison’s sake, L.A.’s best group – their starters including Avery Bradley – has a net rating of 12.6, which is excellent, and ranks 10th in the NBA. In fairness, that LAL group has played 389 minutes together, while OKC’s has played just 177.
*Minimum 150 minutes played.

But on Wednesday, since Schroder left the bubble to be with his wife, expecting their second kid, he won’t be on the court for OKC. Nonetheless, that lineup didn’t have much success against the Lakers anyway. L.A. beat OKC 112-107 on Nov. 19, with SGA a -9, Shroder a +4 and CP3 a +1. Then they beat them the next night in a rare home/road B2B, with CP3 a -12 and SGA a -3, though Shroder did play well, scoring 13 bench points and finishing +9. Finally, L.A. beat OKC 125-110 on Jan. 11 without LeBron or AD.

The Lakers certainly aren’t looking ahead of Round 1 of the playoffs, but the Thunder are currently 0.5 games back of the four and five seeds, and do have the potential to win a series there if L.A. is able to take care of business. Lineup data and matchups would take on considerable importance in a playoff series, if not so much tonight.


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