Cross-Court: The Opening Round

Orange County News - February 10, 2009

TP&G Blog’s “Cross-Court” section will take a closer look at every matchup of every round for Lakers in the playoffs by examining the opponent and the state of the purple and gold.

The moment of truth is finally here, Laker fans. The start of defending the title is set this Sunday at high-noon against the young but confident Oklahoma City Thunder (finished with a record of 50-32 for 8th spot). Interestingly enough, most Laker fans and some areas of the media are saying that the Lakers’ experience will prove to be the deciding factor in this matchup rather than the combined talent of the Laker starters versus that of the Thunder. Some have gone even as far as calling this series a sweep for the defending champs.

But is that plain arrogance or is that a realistic estimation?

Historically, the Lakers play their best basketball in the post-season. But I don’t remember a team that is as black and blue entering the playoffs as this year’s squad. Right now, that is a major concern and should not be overlooked given the kind of team they’re facing in the first round.

The Thunder is one of, if not the youngest team in the league. Their superstar might be a lanky 6′ 9″ small forward, but this team can run. Most importantly, they have one of the two guys in the entire association who has defended Kobe Bryant best this season.

The question is: Will that matter in the playoffs against a more focused Bryant?

Hard to tell. Kobe may very well come into these playoffs with his scowl on. But how well will his body react to everything his mind wants it to do? This is the first time we’ve seen him this hurt even before the playoffs had started. Obviously, Bryant will have a trial run where he’ll be adjusting to his adjustments on both offense and defense. His first change for the post-season is ditching the splint he’s been wearing since his injury.

What does that mean exactly? Nothing really. Bryant can’t hurt his finger anymore than how it is now. Just like any basketball player, Kobe needs a natural feel for the ball to shoot it better. But don’t expect his shooting percentage to go up dramatically right away. On top of the pain, he will now have to get used to handling and shooting the ball before his injury.

The big question is: How long will it take for him to adjust and will it be good enough to help carry the team to victories?

This is where all the adjustments to his game come into play. Bryant has been spending tons of hours working on his shooting stroke from the free-throw line all the way to the three-point line. But don’t be surprised to see Kobe utilizing the pick heavily in the playoffs with (most likely) Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom to help him score attacking the hoop or get enough separation from his defender for a pull-up jumper.

Also, it may be hard for a lot of Laker fans to admit it, but Kobe is now showing signs of aging. He may only be 31 but this is his 14th year in the league. Plus, his preparation for and participation in the Olympics in Beijing pushed his body to its limit. So there’s no doubt he has plenty of basketball mileage in those tired legs.

Speaking of Gasol, he may be putting in double-double work lately, but he’ll need to do even more in the playoffs. In fact, he will have to challenge shots a lot more on the defensive end since teams are going to gear up to expose their backcourt defense. Well okay, the point guard position. Pau will also need to prepare to get shoved and pushed in the paint since teams will try to test his toughness again.

This makes Andrew Bynum‘s return a very welcome sight for him because now Andrew will take over dealing with bigger and bulkier centers. It’s no secret that the Laker offense is more dynamic when Pau attacks from the outside-in and allow Andrew to do his work on the inside.

But the first round is the time for Ron Artest to let loose. After all, isn’t having the best chance at winning an NBA championship the reason why he signed with the Lakers? He slimmed down so that he has a better chance at defending quicker or more athletic players like Kevin Durant. However, his great defensive effort had been sporadic since then.

Much of Artest’s poor offense has been used to judge his role with the Lakers. But defense is his game. There’s too many offensive-minded players in this team already, so Ron should not worry about scoring too much.

But how effective will he be against Durant?

Fortunately, Artest is one of those defenders who can make someone miss or take someone out of their element without blocking shot or stealing. He’s just so good at taking away open lanes and the comfort zone of his man with the way he positions himself next to the guy he’s guarding and how he uses his brawn to keep guys working a lot on just one shot.

He cannot allow Durant dictate their matchup. Artest will have to get into his head early and make him look to pass before shooting. Ron does that by pressuring him each time he has the ball and deny him the ball while protecting a backdoor play. Hopefully, he’ll also look to make Durant play defense and get him in foul trouble by aggressively posting him up. But that depends if Phil will allow his team to look for Ron in the post often.

However, the biggest matchup of this series is that of Derek Fisher and Russell Westbrook.

Oklahoma City has the upper-hand on this and is a concern for Phil and assistant coach Jim Cleamons, the one in charge of studying and manufacturing a defensive plan for the Thunder. The Lakers may have the advantage in the power forward and center positions, but the Thunder can prove to be a serious migraine anywhere else.

Westbrook is a quick, athletic guard that can score with either a jumpshot or with a driving layup almost at will. Need I mention his ability at the defensive end? The guy is strong and has the ability to take away the ball or swat it. About the only thing going against him is he isn’t a very good perimeter player and tends to be a little streaky when it comes to sinking his jumpshot. He is also not very creative when attacking the hoop. He relies on his ups more than his skill in shooting over or around the bigs.

Fish will have to be aware early of seeing how Westbrook wants to attack on offense. Then, plan his defense based on what Westbrook is most comfortable in doing without sacraficing his role as a point guard for the Thunder. Then again, I won’t be surprised if Phil elects to have Russell most of the look on offense while clamping down on both Durant and Jeff Green on the other end.

But how is Derek’s chances against Westbrook?

Better than what most people think. But that all depends upon how much Fish is willing to work on the defensive end. He cannot go under screens at all but cannot allow Westbrook to get to the rim time and time again also. He has to outsmart and outhustle Russell out on the floor if he is to stand any chance in this matchup. He must also challenge shots and make Westbrook work for every pass he wants to make. It’s all about mental fatigue and comfort for Fish against Westbrook.

As for the bench?

Well, Phil will shorten the rotation as he always does in the playoffs. So whoever gets the minutes will have to answer the bell each and every time. They have to be efficient on offense and aggressive but smart on defense. Guys like Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar will need to be patient with their shot selection and use the Triangle to get their points. But they all have to be ready to change things on the fly wherever Phil wants them to contribute more or start doing things differently. As long as they put in the effort on both baskets and make their counterparts work for everything, the second unit should be fine.

The Thunder can say they’re confident heading into this opening round with the Lakers all they want to. One win in 12 tries does not change momentum against any team. But let’s be honest here. If the Lakers show up to play every game, does Oklahoma City really have a chance to beat them 4 times?

Lakers in 5.