Five things to watch in Lakers-Oklahoma City matchup
1. The Lakers must slow the tempo down. There's absolutely no chance the Lakers can maintain a run-and-gun offense, even if it features Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum scoring at a prolific rate. Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden will run laps. As ugly as the Lakers' offense has looked at times, they still remain 11th in the league in points per possession. To what degree the Lakers can show efficiency is predicated on their ball movement, reads on double teams and taking smart shots.
That doesn't mean the Lakers shouldn't find easy baskets. But that mostly points to things beyond running the floor. The frontline needs to immediately establish post position after a defensive stop or rebound. The Lakers have to own the offensive glass. They need to make quick effective swing passes to throw Oklahoma City's rotations off balance. And Bryant needs to avoid shooting in isolation sets.
This strategy doesn't guarantee victory. Oklahoma City's 119-104 victory Wednesday over the Boston Celtics featured a 30-3 run after Boston opened with a 22-12 lead. The Thunder also run 15.6% of their offense off transition, according to Synergy Sports Technology. But slowing the pace down gives the Lakers their only chance in staying in this game.
2. The Lakers must remain disciplined on pick-and-roll defense. Another game, another concern on how the Lakers can stop a speedy backcourt. It's inevitable the Thunder will exploit this. OKC runs 20.5% of their offense on pick-and-rolls between either the ball handler (16.4%) or post-up (6.1%) so it remains critical that the Lakers address this the right way. That involves Derek Fisher and Steve Blake communicating to their frontline so they can show out in time to stop dribble penetration. But it also involves Gasol and Bynum making sure they don't do so, while leaving the paint vulnerable. This will require plenty of communication and crossmatching. It's a losing cause, but it's something the Lakers can at least minimize.
3. Can Metta World Peace limit Kevin Durant? There's a few signs World Peace could become more reliable than he's shown earlier this season. Lakers Coach Mike Brown has mostly played him in the fourth quarter since complaining last week that Brown remains consumed with stats. World Peace held Gerald Wallace in the Lakers' 103-92 victory Monday against the Portland Trail Blazers to seven points on two-of-seven shooting. And in the Lakers' 96-91 win Wednesday over the Dallas Mavericks, World Peace held Vince Carter to two points in the second half after a multitude of defenders couldn't stop his 18 first-half points.
World Peace always remains excited in covering Durant, whom he's maintained is the second-best player in the NBA behind Bryant. But he's definitely up for a challenge considering Durant's 27.7-points-per-game average on 51.2% shooting. Durant thrives the most in isolation sets, averaging a 48.8% clip. World Peace has remained solid in that department, holding opponents to a 38.1% clip. So this matchup should provide a good measure of how much World Peace's conditioning level has improved.
4. Oklahoma City will likely throw multiple defenders at Kobe Bryant. The Thunder can't throw Thabo Sefolosha at Bryant since he remains sidelined with an MCL injury. But it's likely OKC will throw everyone else at him. James Harden will want to rectify Bryant scoring a game winner over him this summer in a Drew League game. Daequan Cook will also get a shot after guarding Celtics guard Ray Allen on Thursday.
5. Pau Gasol will face a good test with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. Two physical defenders will be eager to make Gasol feel frustrated again. But just like the ongoing trade rumors, Gasol needs to face that head-on.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers Kobe Bryant, top, and Metta World Peace, middle, go up against the Thunder last season. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times