Conference semifinal preview: No. 2 Thunder vs. No. 3 Lakers
The Thunder, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, first announced themselves as future championship contenders by testing the then-top-seeded Lakers in a thrilling six-game series in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Two years later, the Thunder must get past an enigmatic but experienced and highly talented Lakers team in the throes of transition if Oklahoma City is to live up to its preseason billing as the Western Conference favorite to make the Finals.
By Monday night's series opener, it will have been nine days since the Thunder finished a first-round sweep of the defending champion Mavericks -- and less than 48 hours since the Lakers endured a seven-game dogfight against the speedy, undersized Nuggets in their first-round matchup. The disparity might initially help the Lakers as they try to steal home-court advantage by riding the momentum and relief of their dramatic win over Denver against a Thunder squad that will have to knock off some rust to regain its postseason rhythm and intensity. But with the first four games of this series taking place over a six-day period, the advantage increasingly swings to Oklahoma City, which usually has four players 23 years or younger on the floor in crunch time, and runs an offense that ranked sixth in pace and second in points per possession during the regular season. The Thunder will be increasing the tempo against the more-veteran Lakers, who were run ragged by the Nuggets and ceded more fast-break points than every team except the Kings, Bobcats and Timberwolves.
If the Lakers are going to pull off the upset, Bynum and Gasol will have to own the boards, reducing the Thunder to a one-and-done jump-shooting team in the half-court to offset Oklahoma City's advantage in transition -- the difference was 64-27 in fast-break points during their three regular-season meetings. By contrast, if Oklahoma City's big men can hold their own or, as was the case in the second meeting between the teams this season, win their battle with Bynum and Gasol, the Lakers will be rapidly eliminated.
The addition of Sessions as a penetrator and pick-and-roll initiator in the offense provided the Lakers with yet another weapon to go with superstar Bryant and the best twin towers in the NBA. But this has been a tenaciously star-crossed season for L.A., beginning with the departure of coach Phil Jackson, the aborted trade of Lamar Odom and Gasol followed by the dime-on-the-dollar dealing of Odom, and straight on through to the curiously inconsistent and uninspired play of Bynum and Gasol against the Nuggets. The Lakers survived in part because Denver had no crunch-time closer. By contrast, the Thunder have three in Durant, Westbrook and Harden.
Oklahoma City has been on a mission only partially marred by an inconsistent April that cost it the No. 1 seed in the West to the Spurs. The Thunder convincingly beat the Lakers twice in the regular season and lost in overtime in late April only because Westbrook shot 3-for-22 and Harden was concussed by World Peace in the second quarter and didn't return. They hold home-court advantage against a Lakers team that has gone 16-20 on the road in the regular season and playoffs. If the Lakers can capitalize on Thunder rust in Game 1, it could be a great, long series. Otherwise,