All season long, the Lakers (15-20) have been searching for an answer to their struggles as a team, any spark that they can use as motivation to turn things around. That may have come in the final 6 minutes of their 108-105 loss to the Spurs on Wednesday.
Down by as much as 17 points in the 2nd half and 13 points in the 4th quarter, the Lakers digged deep defensively and held San Antonio's offense to just 5 points in a manic run that cut their deficit to 3 points thanks to Earl Clark's out-of-nowhere trey. Clark's outstanding performance and cool demeanor may have been the spark the Lakers desperately needed to help them realize what they, as a team, must do to salvage a season that is rapidly slipping through their fingers.
Tonight, they take on another a familiar foe that presents an even bigger challenge for them to conquer despite being at home. And if the Lakers truly learned anything against the Spurs, then they should cease this game as their last opportunity to prove to themselves that they are still not down for the count.
The Oklahoma City Thunder (27-8) come in to Staples Center for the first time since Game 4 of last season's 2nd round playoffs having won 3 of their 5 games in the new year. In fact, the Thunder have taken 4 of the last 6 meetings against the purple and gold on the road, including the playoffs, since getting bounced by the Lakers in the 1st round in 2010. The Thunder own the NBA's 2nd-highest scoring team honors (105.4 per game) thanks in large to their 2 superstars. And if the Lakers want to the "W" tonight, they will have to take care one of them.
Kevin Durant is the league's 3rd-highest scorer putting up close to 28 points per game. Not only can he score anywhere on the floor, Durant does it with amazing efficiency. He's shooting 51.9% from the field, 41.7% from distance and 90.4% from the line. No question he can shoot the ball, but a lot of that has to do with his length and athleticism to put some space between him and his defender.
Metta World Peace will have to work on the defensive end early tonight. He knows what he needs to do against Durant, but the tricky part is he's gonna have to do it without fouling. The Lakers do have Devin Ebanks and Clark to put on Durant after him, but it's important for MWP to set the formula in guarding KD.
But the bigger problem for the Lakers tonight, I think, is Russell Westbrook. In the first meeting against OKC, Westbrook's 27-point 1st half barrage was really the one that broke the Lakers' back. The Lakers lost that game by only 6 points after being down by as much as 19 thanks to a huge 27-12 run. If the Lakers could've somehow held him to at least 20 points in the first 2 quarters, we might be looking at the Thunder trying to even the season series with the Lakers tonight.
Even if the Lakers have all of their bigs available, containing Westbrook won't be an easy task. He leads all point guards in the league in scoring averaging 21.8 points a game. But the real reason why he's such a concern on the defensive end is his speed, athleticism and, above all, swagger playing against the Lakers. He knows the Lakers have no answer for him individually on defense. And if the last game serves as any reminder of how much damage he can do in just 2 quarters, the Lakers better be prepared to work together as a team to keep the same thing from happening tonight.
This is the 2nd of 4 meetings between these two teams and the 1st of 2 at Staples Center this month. The Thunder took last season's series, 2-1.
Matchup of the Game
Kevin Durant vs. Metta World Peace: Westbrook may be the bigger headache for the Lakers, but Durant is still the real danger here. If he gets it going, there's very little the Lakers can do to win the game. That is unless MWP can make him uncomfortable for most of the night and force Durantula to play some defense on the other end. Metta was extremely aggressive and effective on both ends of the floor against the Spurs. He has to continue that tonight.
Keys to the Game
> Team Defense: Until the Lakers get their enforcer in the paint in Dwight Howard, team defense is going to be very, very important for them. It would be nice to see them get consistent effort in heading back on defense, but how many teams can really say that against the Thunder? The best bet for the Lakers is to rotate well, help the helper, run OKC out of the 3-point line and build a wall in the paint to prevent easy baskets.
> Half-court Tempo: It would be very foolish for the Lakers to even think about running against this team. One of the reasons why the Lakers managed to cut down a 19-point deficit in the 2nd half of the last game against OKC is they were able to control the pace of the game. Sure, their bigs were playing at that time, but the point is they took away one of the Thunder's biggest strengths. That's going to be a major factor if the Lakers win tonight.
> Be Aggressive: The Lakers nearly stole one from the Spurs on Wednesday. Tony Parker made 2 crucial turnovers in that game because the defense was moving well and cutting lanes towards the basket. As seemingly unstoppable Westbrook and Durant are offensively, decision-making is still one of their biggest weaknesses. Both guys are averaging a combined 6.8 turnovers this season. The Lakers have to play rugged defense to force them in bad situations. Offensively, the Lakers have to attack these guys. Yeah, Durant has improved on D, but he still can't stop World Peace in the post. And Westbrook has been known to make dumb decisions on defense.
Watch Out For
THUNDER: Nick Collison: This guy has been a thorn on the side of the Lakers coming off the bench. Much like Jordan Hill, Collison is the designated energy guy who is relentless around the boards. His 13-point, 7-board outing last time was one of the reasons why the Lakers could not muster a come-from-behind win in Chesapeake Energy Arena.
LAKERS: Kobe Bryant: I think Kobe is going to come out with mean purpose tonight. He knows what's at stake if the Lakers continue to lose.
Tonight vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. (PST)
TV: TWC SportsNet (Southern California)/ESPN (national)
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
LAKERS: Steve Blake (abdomen), Pau Gasol (concussion), Jordan Hill (hip) and Dwight Howard (shoulder) are all out.