Lakers face a lot of uncertainty heading into first-round matchup with Oklahoma City
In the midst of two glorified scrimmages this week, the Lakers had already begun their preparation for their first-round matchup beginning Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (fractured right index finger) and center Andrew Bynum (strained left Achilles' tendon) sat out the last two games to ensure a healthy postseason run. Lakers guard Jordan Farmar sat out all but 1.3 seconds of the Lakers' 107-91 loss Wednesday to the Clippers to do the same. And Lakers Coach Phil Jackson acknowledged that much of his pre-game routine entailed watching Oklahoma's season-finale, a 114-105 victory over Memphis.
The Lakers (57-25) have two days of full practice before Game 1 begins at noon Sunday at Staples Center, but there's a lot of uncertainty even for a No. 1 versus No. 8 matchup. Though Jackson believes Bryant "is going to be fine," the Zen Master still acknowledged some of the physical limitations have limited him from fighting through double coverage. Though he declined to anticipate how quickly Bynum would become acclimated to the lineup, Jackson noted his conditioning will largely determine how many minutes the Lakers would use him. And though the Thunder (50-32) will appear in its first playoff series since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, Jackons still wonders if the team's youth (Oklahoma City is the league's second-youngest team, boasting a lineup whose players' average age is 25) and talent level (forward Kevin Durant leads the league in scoring, averaging 30.1 points per game) would become an additional challenge.
"It’s always an adjustment to go to the unknown," Jackson said. "I don’t know if it’s easier, better or what’s worse it’s just you always have to make the changes. You can’t get set in your mind so you have to be flexible."
This matchup featuring the Lakers, the defending NBA champions, and the Thunder, a young and quick team, reminded Jackson the time he coached the 1994-95 Chicago Bulls. Though that team was largely experienced with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, this was just the beginning of Jordan's first comeback team. The Bulls played the Charlotte Hornets in the first round of the playoffs after the team notched their first 50-win season in franchise history. The Bulls won that series, 3-1, but the Orlando Magic provided a frustrated ending to Jordan's comeback season. The Magic featured plenty of young talent, including Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott and wound up in the NBA Finals before being swept 4-0 by Houston. But the team had never won a playoff series entering the 1995 postseason.
Despite some of the uncertainty, Jackson had a few concrete ideas on how to beat Oklahoma City. The first factor involved the Lakers' defense, which actually allowed only 95.7 points per game in April but still remained undisciplined on the screen-and-roll as well as on rotations. The second factor involved "how we play as a team," a vague phrase, but something that's mostly the reason why Lakers lacked consistent chemistry. And the third factor, Jackson said, involved "who can convert in critical parts of the game," an area the Lakers actually excelled against Oklahoma City by winning two of their three games this season in the final minute.
Jackson made his point pretty clear regarding the importance that Lakers forward Ron Artest plays well in the postseason, saying "Ron will be an impact in the playoffs. That’s my feeling."
But how that will happen remains unclear. Consider the exchange Jackson had with Channel 9's John Ireland regarding how the team plans to match up against Durant:
Ireland: "Have you discussed yet when you play Oklahoma City how much emphasis you put on Durant with your defense, and how much is too much? Has that come up yet?"
Ireland: "Do you have any thoughts on it"
Ireland: "Is it something you'll discuss in the future?"
Jackson: "No, I won't. Not with you, but with the team."
It turns out Jackson only likes discussing Durant when it involves his league-leading 840 free-throw attempts and the 10.2 foul shots he averages per contest. With drawing a $35,000 fine for suggesting Durant benefits from officiating calls, perhaps Jackson won't engage with Durant's retort that Jackson's comments were inaccurate and disrespectful.
Artest was equally as vague. Instead of centering on an Artest-Durant matchup, Artest said it's about the "Lakers versus Oklahoma." Instead of highlighting the team's inexperience, Artest argued "they're well-coached" by Scott Brooks. Though the Lakers earned the West's top seed, Artest said the "No. 1 spot doesn't mean much," citing last season where he helped the Houston Rockets push the Lakers to a seven-game series in the Western Conference semifinals.
Lakers guard Jordan Farmar didn't mind sharing his opinions, however, saying that Durant shouldn't be considered the league MVP.
"I think he's very good and I think he's going to be one of the best scorers of all time," he said.
"But I don't think he's at the NBA MVP level. You can't be at the eighth seed and be the MVP. That's nothing against him."
Case in point, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Bryant trail Durant in scoring but are on teams with better records. Still, Farmar said "I haven't thought too much about it," when I asked him who should be the league MVP. Perhaps a safe answer since Bryant's nagging injuries has limited his effectiveness even if his presence has been largely valued.
Nonetheless, the Lakers face much more important uncertainty. The team had often talked about how it can't decide to just flip the switch once the postseason starts and that it has to be a gradual process. But Farmar argued, "We don't have a choice."
"We haven't been playing the best basketball the last couple days," he said. "For us, it's knowing it really counts now where we're going for everything. This is what we've talked about all season. We want to defend our title. Now we have the chance in front of us."
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Photo Credit: Stephen Dunn, Getty Images.