Thunder-Lakers Preview

LAKERS MUST PROVE THEY'RE LEGITIMATE WITH STRONG OUTING VS. OKC SUNDAY

Things were looking up there for the Los Angeles Lakers. The temporary absence of Kobe Bryant allowed Andrew Bynum to blossom, highlighted by a 30 rebound performance in San Antonio. Pau Gasol made not one, but two three-pointers in an overtime win over Dallas. Los Angeles was winning, AND having fun doing it.

But then...roadblock!

  • The rematch with the Spurs didn't go well at all, with a fired up San Antonio team intent on sending a message in a potential playoff preview.

  • A SECOND rematch with the Spurs went even worse, considering that Kobe Bryant was back and the Lakers were at full strength. San Antonio filled up the highlight reels with beautiful passes and pure shooting...reminding everyone that the Lakers can be slow to defend against teams who know how to move the ball.

Is it possible to take the Lakers seriously when they just lost so badly twice in a row to the Spurs? Are the Lakers better off without Kobe because his ball-hogging ruins the mood and the chemistry of the team? Are the Lakers destined for another embarrassingly early departure in the Western Conference brackets?

We'll learn a lot about that Sunday afternoon when the Los Angeles Lakers host Oklahoma City in a game to be nationally televised by ABC. Oklahoma City is currently neck-and-neck with the Spurs for the #1 and #2 seeds in the Western Conference. The Lakers are in third place right now, trying to hold off the LA Clippers. Whether the Lakers finish third or fourth in the West, they'll be matched up against either San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the second round barring upsets. We know they're in trouble defensively against San Antonio. Can they hang with Oklahoma City?

Let's crunch some stathead numbers, then talk more about the matchup.

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY
Oklahoma City: 8th in the NBA
LA Lakers: 13th in the NBA

As we've mentioned a few times this year, the Western teams are better than their league rankings would suggest. The unbalanced schedules made life very easy for the East again because there are so many bad teams on that side of the standings. As a result, the first six teams in the league efficiency rankings on defense (points allowed adjusted for possessions) are all from the East. Memphis leads the West with a #7 ranking. Oklahoma City is right behind them, tied with Dallas for second in the West and #8 in the league.

In other words, if everyone had to play the same schedule, Oklahoma City would probably have one of the best five defenses in the NBA. All the media coverage about the team concerns Kevin Durant and Russell Westbook. Hey they're fantastic. But, this is a DEFENSIVE-minded team too.

The Lakers are fifth best in the West, which is nothing to sneeze at. But, they are slow to chase around the perimeter. They're probably a top eight team in the league against opponents who try to fly at the rim. The great Lakers length defends well against that. For teams who move the ball well, the Lakers probably look more like a 20th ranked defense.

REBOUND RATE
LA Lakers: 2nd in the league
Oklahoma City: 3rd in the league

Great stuff here. These two are among the elite teams in his critical stat even though they have to play in the tougher conference. The Lakers length is very important here obviously. Oklahoma City combines size, speed, and athleticism to chase down a lot of loose balls. Once again, the media is overlooking something vital just because they want to hype young scorers. Be sure that YOU don't do that as handicappers. You need to know what wins games in playoff style basketball if you're going to make money from this point forward.

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY
Oklahoma City: 2nd in the league
LA Lakers: 10th in the league

Oklahoma City only trails San Antonio in this stat. The young scorers generally do a good job of playing smart. Only Westbrook loses his focus a bit and forces up bad shots. You really have to respect the heck out of OKC with rankings this high in offensive efficiency and rebound rate in the league's tougher conference.

The Lakers aren't up to championship standards on this side of the ball. But, all the talk from earlier this season about how new head coach Mike Brown has ruined the offense seems unfounded. Top 10 from the tougher conference is a fine showing. And, Kobe's efficiency was so poor most of the year that no coach was going to get good ball movement from this team. Kobe is a ball-stopper who likes forcing up guarded shots. That's the opposite of efficiency.

To this point, we see that Oklahoma City is the better team, and clearly a championship caliber team all things considered. They're not alone, which is what makes the potential for this year so exciting. The Lakers? They're clearly a playoff caliber team in terms of being one of the 16th best in the league. Are they one of the eight best teams in the league? Can they win the West with a fresh Kobe leading the way.

Normally, at this point we'd rule out the Lakers as a title threat. Those two most recent showings vs. San Antonio provided very clear evidence that the defense is vulnerable against smarter sharpshooters. But, the Western Conference has recently had a "rock-paper-scissors" element to it that keeps the door open for anything. Nobody thought Dallas was destined for a championship last year outside of Jason Terry and his tattoo.

  • The Lakers MIGHT have a chance against Oklahoma City, a team that does so much damage attacking the basket. The Lakers have the size to deal with that...and the kind of mindset that can get Westbook off his game. If Westbrook tries to out-Kobe Kobe, then the ball hogs cancel out and the rest of the Lakers have a chance to be very competitive. That's what makes Sunday's meeting on TV so important. We need to see how the key players handle today's pressure.

  • The Lakers MIGHT have a chance against a team like Memphis, who tries to beat you inside with their size and physicality. You'll recall that Memphis took out San Antonio in a 1-8 series last year, and could easily play spoiler again on their side of the bracket. If Los Angeles gets some help from others knocking out potential problem opponents, they would then be in position to deal with Memphis.

If the Lakers can hold onto the #3 seed and draw disappointing Dallas in the first round...which is a team they have a better chance to beat this year...then get Oklahoma City in the second round rather than San Antonio...we could see Kobe playing for a conference or league title down the road. On the other hand, this team may not get out of the first round if they draw the wrong opponent.

Big day...big moment for handicappers who should be preparing right now for the challenges ahead in the postseason.

There are some other big games on the Sunday schedule too. JIM HURLEY is particularly interested in:
New York at Atlanta on ESPN
Houston at Miami on the NBA Network
Orlando at Denver

You can expect at least one TV bombshell Sunday in the NBA. And, the baseball schedule is still loaded too...

Sunday's Marquee MLB Matchups:
Texas at Detroit (Lewis vs. Smyly on TBS)
San Francisco at NY Mets (Lincecum vs. Gee)
Miami at Washington (Johnson vs. Gonzalez)
NY Yankees at Boston (Sabathia vs. Bard in prime time on ESPN)

Purchase today's NETWORK slate online with our credit card. Or, call us in the office Sunday morning at 1-800-323-4453 for details on longterm service.

Oklahoma City is championship material. The LA Lakers may turn out to be as well. There's never a question about JIM HURLEY. He's been the undisputed WORLD CHAMPION OF HANDICAPPING for 25 years!

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