By winning 14 of their next 18 games after losing 4-consecutive games in January, the Lakers (30-30) have climbed their way back to within 2 games of the final spot in the west. The Jazz have slid down as the 8th seed thanks to their 1-4 record over the last 5 games.
Utah and Golden State have been sputtering of late, but the Jazz could have a tougher time recovering as they still have 3 more road games before heading back to Salt Lake City. The Warriors will be at home for their next 6 games. But the Lakers can't worry too much about what those teams do. They still have to win games to get themselves in the playoffs no matter what happens. But tonight's game will be one of their very toughest the rest of the way as they face the Oklahoma City Thunder (43-16) on the road for the last time this season.
The Thunder still owns one of the most impressive home record in the league at 26-4. They've beaten the Lakers at the Chesapeake Energy Arena by an average of 13.6 points since being eliminated in the opening round of the 2010 playoffs.
OKC is 2nd in points production in the NBA averaging 106.7 points per game. They're also 3rd in scoring efficiency at 48.3% and 2nd in 3-point efficiency at 39.1% a game. Defensively, they're 2nd in opponent scoring from the field at 43% and tops the league in block shots averaging 7.6 per outing. In other words, the Thunder can hurt any team on either end of the floor.
If the Lakers have any chance at upsetting the Thunder, they will have to take care of at least one of their leaders.
Kevin Durant loves to shoot against the purple and gold. In the 3 meetings this season, he's averaging an insane 37.7 points on 51.4% shooting. Needless to say, he's the guy the Lakers can't afford to get off offensively. Then again, Russell Westbrook cannot be taken any lighter than Durant.
Westbrook may have had an off-night last time, but he's been putting up 25.7 points (40.6%) and dishing 10.3 assists per game versus the Lakers this year. His aggressiveness in attacking the rim and lack of conscience launching those threes are usually the first things the Lakers worry about on defense. And if he gets it going offensively like his 25-point outburst in just the 1st half last time the Lakers were in town, watch out.
On the bright side, the Lakers have improved as a team. While the verdict is still out on how much of that progression matters to teams like the Thunder, the Lakers will need to continue to play as a team and fight in every possession tonight. It's crucial for them to come out of that locker room with a collective understanding that they can't start or end the game with no desire to win.
This is the 4th and final meeting of the regular season against OKC. The Lakers have not taken the season series since the 2009-2010 season and have not won in Oklahoma City since Feb. 27, 2011.
Matchup of the Game
Metta World Peace vs. Kevin Durant: Beating the Thunder has always been about this matchup. If Metta can contain Durant on defense, the Lakers stand a good chance of winning. If he can contribute offensively, Metta can make the Lakers tougher to beat. Let's hope that happens tonight.
Keys to the Game
> Ready and Loaded: The fate of the Lakers will rely heavily on how they start the game. If they come out shooting bricks, they're in trouble. If they're a step too slow on defense, they're in for a long night.
> Turnovers: This ugly thing again? Yup! Careless passing will be the death of the Lakers. Period.
> Defense: Now that the Lakers are inching closer to the playoffs, they may want to start relying on their defense to win them games. It's going to be difficult and definitely easier said than done, but they have to stop penetrations and challenge jump shots by committee to beat the Thunder.
Watch Out For
LAKERS: Kobe Bryant: No one needs to remind Kobe that every single game leading up to the 82nd one is a big one. He also knows that by defeating OKC on the road tonight will be a tremendous boost to the Lakers. It will be very interesting to see how he approaches this game.
THUNDER: Bench: Both Nick Collison and Kevin Martin have been instrumental for the Thunder in their wins against the Lakers. For Collison, it's his energy, rebounding and defense. For Martin, it's his shooting and ability to get to the line. The problem is the Lakers have yet to stop either guy from doing what they do this season.
@ Oklahoma City Thunder
6:30 p.m. (PST)
Chesapeake Energy Arena
TV: TNT (National)
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
LAKERS: Pau Gasol (foot) and Jordan Hill (hip) are out.