Things to watch in Lakers-Oklahoma City matchup
It's easy to presume that following an effortless loss against the Clippers, the Lakers (30-12) would respond in convincing fashion Monday at Staples Center against the Oklahoma City Thunder (27-13). They felt frustrated after losing to a sub-.500 opponent, although the Clippers have been over .500 the last 10 games. They play a likely playoff contender in OKC that tested them in the first round of the 2010 NBA playoffs. And the tougher portion of the Lakers' schedule now officially begins, including matchups against Dallas, Denver, Utah and Boston in the next two weeks.
But one only has to see that the Lakers responded to a double-digit loss Dec. 22 to Milwaukee with another clunker on Christmas Day against Miami. Interestingly enough, the Lakers' poor performance came after a 6-1 trip that spoke more about the team's inferior competition than any solid habits. To some degree, the Lakers' seven-game winning streak proved a tad misleading because the team's effort against New Orleans and New York only represented true measures on where they stand with the league's contending teams. With how the Lakers appeared woefully unprepared against Miami and San Antonio last month, it's hard to say where the Lakers measure up.
That doesn't mean the Lakers won't prove otherwise. There's just no reason to predict what the Lakers might do because, for better or worse, the only consistent pattern they've painted thus far is how inconsistent they are.
2. How will Ron Artest match up with Kevin Durant?
Artest may not know it, but this game is a true measuring stick for him. He slimmed down to 250 pounds specifically with Durant in mind because of his belief that he couldn't keep up with Durant's quickness in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, though Durant averaged 25 points on 35% shooting in the series, a clear drop from his 30.1 points a game average on 47.6% shooting in the regular season.
Durant remains the league's leading scorer with 28.5 points, and Artest recently demonstrated in the Lakers' 99-92 loss Sunday to the Clippers that he didn't have the speed and footwork to keep up with guard Eric Gordon, who scored 30 points on 13-of-20 shooting.
It's conceivable that the Lakers might see the Thunder in the postseason again, so it's necessary to for Artest to use this matchup as a barometer on where he stands in his hope to strike a balance between playing physical and agile.
"Kevin Durant and all these guys are getting better. We're getting older, but they're getting better and older," Artest said Oct. 9 in training camp. "I didn't want to be 260, 270 [pounds] when I have to go up against the All-Stars."
3. Can the Lakers hold off the Thunder in transition?
Containing OKC was a concept the Lakers forever struggled with during the first-round matchup and it's an area the Clippers easily exploited with 21 fast-break points. The Lakers simply don't have the personnel to keep up with youthful teams, such as the Clippers and Thunder, with the OKC featuring Russell Westbrook (12th in scoring at 22.6 points a game), Serge Ibaka (averaging 26.1 minutes, 9.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in only his second season), Jeff Green and James Harden. A recipe for the Lakers to limit such possibilities points to their shot selection and rebounding. The Lakers' three-of-20 mark from three-point range (15%) and their 50-45 rebounding deficit largely led to the Clippers cashing in on the open floor. Playing at a more deliberate and disciplined pace can prevent the Thunder from doing the same thing.
4. Will the Lakers exploit OKC's dropoff on defense?
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson contended nothing's changed about the Thunder since they met last year in the playoffs. But The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry explains in great detail how Ron Adams' departure to Chicago has largely contributed to the team's regression in opponent points, opponent field-goal percentage, opponent 3-point field-goal percentage, blocked shots, opponent turnovers and defensive efficiency. That doesn't mean, however, the Lakers will suddenly face little resistance. In fact, the Thunder has indicated it plans to hand out 18 hard fouls against the Lakers to intimidate them from going inside and to force teams to cash in at the free-throw line. The Lakers didn't struggle from the stripe against the Clippers, but Pau Gasol has been the frontline's only reliably free throw shooter (82%), while Andrew Bynum (60%) and Lamar Odom (65%) have fared poorly.
Considering the Thunder, like most teams, don't have the size to counter the Lakers' front line, it's a much more valuable consolation to make them win at the free-throw line than in the paint. After all, Gasol (69.5%), Odom (73.2%) and Bynum (75.8%) are pretty much unstoppable at shots close to the rim, according to HoopData.com. It could also prove to be an effective strategy, considering Gasol lately has shied away from physical play. It's misleading to continue the cliche that Gasol's soft (he's not), but he has lacked aggression and has remained passive when the team's crispness on offense has waned. It's led him to cut corners on defense and in overall effort, an area the Thunder could exploit even more if the Lakers don't handle the hard fouls well and convert at the free-throw line.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant drives to the basket against Thunder forward Jeff Green, left, and Nenad Krstic in Game 2 of the Western Conference playoffs. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times.