By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.
Oklahoma City Thunder
• The Thunder has a chance to win a NBA championship because of their “Big Three” of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. They combined for 68.4 points per game during the regular season, which was 66.3 percent of Oklahoma City’s scoring. These three players put tremendous pressure on opponents because of their one-on-one skills and abilities to get to the free throw line. They combine to get to the line 19.9 times per game and all three of them are low-to-mid 80 percent free throw shooters.
What separates teams in the playoffs is the ability to make plays when a set breaks down, when the shot clock is winding down and to make plays in the fourth quarter. The Thunder has drafted three of the NBA’s top one-on-one players and scorers. They have three max-type players on their team and it will be these three players that carry this team to the Western Conference finals.
• James Harden, who was recently named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, is a selfless superstar. Not many players with his ability would play third fiddle to Durant and Westbrook. The Thunder should reward him and get him more shots! Kevin Durant averages 19.8 field goal attempts while Russell Westbrook averages 18.0 per game. I know that Durant and Westbrook are talented but Harden is an underutilized weapon for the Thunder. He is an extremely efficient player who attacks the rim, gets to the free throw line and shoots a high percentage from the 3-point line. Harden averaged 16.8 points per game on only 10.1 field goal attempts per game and got to the free throw line six times per game. He is also the best facilitator on their team and the ball needs to be in his hands more. The Lakers will have major problems defending Harden if they have Metta World Peace on Durant and if they need to switch Kobe onto Westbrook. At that point Harden will be facing the third- or fourth-best defender on the Lakers roster and Scott Brooks needs to get the ball into Harden’s hands and let him attack. When Bryant is assigned to Harden the Thunder need to attack him with pick-and-rolls, run him off screens and wear Kobe down as much as possible on the defensive end of the floor.
• The Thunder have had problems with turnovers; they were 29th in the league with 16.3 turnovers per game, with Durant, Westbrook and Harden combining to commit 9.6 turnovers per game. They play fast and Westbrook is an aggressive attacking point guard. They did that in the first round of the playoffs versus Dallas averaging only 12.8 turnovers per game. In their two wins versus the Lakers this season the Thunder only averaged 11 turnovers per game. However, in their third matchup, a game that the Thunder lost, they had 17 turnovers. Games in the playoffs are won and lost by extremely narrow margins. Turnovers are killers and the Thunder must continue to have low turnover games in order to defeat the Lakers.
• Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka must defend and rebound at a high level if the Thunder are to advance. They will have the task of defending Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, battling them on the glass and protecting the rim. The Lakers dominate most opponents in the paint but the Thunder has the ability to negate their effectiveness. Perkins, if healthy, will attempt to stand Bynum up and get him outside of his comfort zone. He will try to deny deep post touches, lean on him and hopefully tire Bynum out as the game wears on. Ibaka has been tremendous this season versus the Lakers. He has averaged 12.3 points per game, 12 rebounds and 4.3 blocks. He has the height, length and toughness to match Gasol. Although Gasol has a tremendous height advantage Ibaka must try to pressure and intimidate him with physical play and shot-blocking. The Lakers are tremendous at getting deep post touches and scoring, and Perkins and Ibaka must stop that from happening.
• "Small ball" could come into play in this series. The Thunder are the more versatile team and when they choose to downsize and play Durant at the 4 it will cause the Lakers problems. When the Thunder have gone small they let Durant defend Pau Gasol and ask him to limit his deep post touches. On the other hand, the Lakers have put Gasol on Fisher, and kept World Peace on Durant. This makes Gasol run around on the perimeter defending a guard who can shoot deep open 3-point shots.
• The Thunder will have trouble defeating the Lakers if they cannot control the glass. The Lakers averaged 12.3 offensive rebounds per game this season, eighth best in the NBA. In their three games against the Thunder during the regular season they averaged 16.6 offensive rebounds per game.
The bigger problem is that they averaged 21.0 offensive rebounds in their last two meetings. If this trend continues it will prove fatal to the Thunder. They must keep Bynum (3.6 offensive rebounds), World Peace (3.3) and Gasol (2.6) off the glass. The Lakers' ability to dominate the glass allows them to get second-chance opportunities, get to the foul line, and slow the pace of the game.
Los Angeles Lakers
• The first problem that the Lakers face in this series is the schedule. Because their opening series against the Denver Nuggets went seven games they must turnaround and start the second round on Monday night with little rest, and very little preparation. To make matters worse the Lakers must play four games in six days, with back-to-back home games in Los Angeles next Friday and Saturday. The Thunder have been off since May 5 and are well-rested. The schedule favors the younger more athletic Thunder team and the Lakers will be lucky to keep the first game of this series close. If they can somehow extend the series and get it to six or seven games they will be able to get some rest, and practice time to better prepare for the Thunder. If they can do that then they may have a chance.
• Kobe Bryant makes tough shots! But is that is not the recipe for defeating Oklahoma City. Kobe has averaged 24.3 points per game but only shot 30.6 percent in his three games this season versus the Thunder. When Kobe attacks the rim, gets to the free throw line, picks his spots offensively and is a facilitator for his teammates the Lakers are a better team. If Bryant insists on taking over games and settling for low-percentage jump shots the Lakers will lose this series. When he does miss, it will trigger fast-break opportunities for the Thunder which is exactly what the Lakers do not want. Bryant can get 40 points on any given night in this series, and he has the ability and mental makeup to make a game winner to beat the Thunder. But over the course of a long series his shot selection, his ability to get to the free throw line, and his ability to get his teammates easy shots will be what determines if the Lakers win this series.
• The single biggest factor in whether the Lakers beat the Thunder will be the play of Bynum and Gasol. If they show up every game and are aggressive and assertive the Lakers can win this series. In their last meeting of the regular season, a game in which the Lakers won, they outscored the Thunder 56-42 in paint points. The Lakers must have tremendous spacing and for Bynum and Gasol to operate and Brown must find a way to get as many 3-point shooters on the court as possible. Gasol and Bynum attempted 29.3 field goals per game this season versus the Thunder and shot 45.4 percent from the field. These two players get high quality shots, get to the foul line, slow down the Thunder, and create wide open 3-point looks for Bryant, Blake, and World Peace. If the Lakers deviate from this strategy they will lose.
• If the Lakers are to beat the Thunder their extremely thin and weak bench must not only show up but consistently perform. Their bench was ranked 27th in the NBA, with a minus-8.6 differential during the regular season. In the first two games of the season between these two teams the Thunder bench outscored the Lakers by a total of 19 points (46-27). However, in the last game of the regular season between these two teams the Lakers got tremendous production from Devin Ebanks, Jordan Hill and Steve Blake. The Lakers got a total of 38 points from their bench and these three players accounted for 35 of them. They outscored the Thunder by 11 points (38-29) in a game that was decided in double overtime. If the Lakers are to have any chance in this series they must get consistent performances from their bench and role players each and every game.
• The Lakers are a poorly constructed team. With their frontline of Bynum and Gasol and Kobe Bryant’s one-on-one abilities they desperately need shooters who can space the court. Their lack of perimeter shooting is the teams Achilles' heel. They only shot 32.6 percent from the 3-point line, which ranked them 26th in the NBA. Because they cannot stretch the floor, opponents can double, sit in the lane and clog up clean opportunities for the Lakers big men and Kobe to operate.
• The Lakers must get to the free throw line in this series. During the regular season they got there 23.9 times per game, which ranked them ninth in the NBA. This season versus the Thunder they improved on that number getting to the line 28.6 times per game. When they did defeat the Thunder this season they had a free throw differential of plus 12, getting to the free throw line 40 times. Getting to the free throw line allows the Lakers to control the pace of the game. The Lakers are need to be aggressive, attack the rim, and get fouled. This will limit the Thunder’s fast break opportunities. Bryant has averaged 9.3 free throw attempts this season versus the Thunder, while Gasol 6.0 and Bynum only 3.6. Gasol and Bynum must be much more aggressive taking the ball to the basket strong and getting to the line.
• A key matchup in this series will be World Peace on Durant. When they met in the playoffs two years ago, World Peace mugged him and slowed him down. He held him, wrapped him up and made his life miserable. Durant is now an older and wiser player and World Peace has slowed down a bit. World Peace can still defend one-on-one if Durant stands still, but if he catches the ball and can rip it for hard drives and pull-up jump shots World Peace will have difficulty staying with him off the dribble.
Russell Westbrook: Westbrook is a special player and should put extreme pressure on the Lakers in this series with his freakish athleticism. Westbrook averaged 23.6 points and 5.4 assists per game this season. Westbrook is a one man fast-break, pushing the ball from foul line to foul line with tremendous speed, and he is the main reason the Thunder score 16.1 points in transition. Westbrook averaged 3.6 turnovers per game and he must improve his decision-making in order for the Thunder to be a championship-level team. Westbrook averaged 22.3 points per game in the first round against Dallas but only shot 30.8 percent from the field. Westbrook needs to strike a balance between his own scoring and keeping his teammates involved, especially Kevin Durant.
Ramon Sessions: Sessions was a very good pickup by the Lakers at the trade deadline; he is the athletic, playmaking guard the Lakers were desperate to acquire. Sessions is the facilitator of the Lakers offense and he must find a nice balance between getting Bryant his shots and getting the ball inside to Bynum and Gasol. He has limited experience in the playoffs, having only played in the Lakers' previous seven games in the first round. He must keep Westbrook out of the paint in this series. He has averaged 12.7 points and 6.2 assists in his 23 games in a Lakers uniform. Sessions is a poor 3-point shooter who only shot 19.0 percent in the first round.
Thabo Sefalosha: Thabo is the Thunder’s glue guy and a solid overall role player. He only averaged 4.8 points per game but that is not why he is on the court. He starts in the backcourt for the Thunder because of his defense. Playing alongside the NBA’s leading scorer, Sefalosha’s main responsibility in this series will be to defend Kobe Bryant. He can space the court and make open 3 point shots. This season he shot a career best 44.0 percent from the 3-point line.
Kobe Bryant: Bryant has played 16 seasons in a Lakers uniform and has won five NBA championships. He came in second in the league in scoring just behind Kevin Durant with 27.9 points per game. In the first round of the playoffs, Bryant elevated his scoring to 29.1 points per game. He also shot 44.8 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from the 3-point line against Denver. He is still the most talented player in the NBA and the Thunder will be hard pressed to match him defensively. Bryant is the closer for the Lakers and has never shied away from taking and making big shots.
Kevin Durant: Durant was the leading scorer in the NBA this season, just beating out Bryant with 28.0 points per game. Durant improved his shooting percentage this season, shooting 50.0 percent from the field and 39.0 percent from the 3 point line. He got to the free throw line 8.3 times in the first round of the playoffs. Durant is a big time rebounder from the small forward position averaging 8.0 per game. Durant must learn when and how to take games over in the playoffs. He has worked hard to improve defensively and with his length and athleticism he is very difficult to shoot over. Durant must keep his cool going up against the physical play of World Metta Peace in this series.
Metta World Peace: World Peace missed seven games after elbowing Harden in the back of the head. He had a major impact in his first game back in Game 7 against the Nuggets; he scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds and shot 4-for-11 (36.4) percent from the 3-point line. Metta had an impact on the game defensively with 4.0 steals and 2.0 blocks. He will have the assignment of defending Durant, the leading scorer in the NBA. World Peace must make Durant work to catch the ball off of his sweet spots. He must be physical and contest every shot Durant attempts. If World Peace can limit Durant’s scoring and field goal percentage the Lakers have a much better chance to succeed in this series.
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka is having the best season of his career for Oklahoma City. He is a terrific defender and an even better shot-blocker. He led the NBA in blocked shots with 3.6 per game. Ibaka is an aggressive rebounder and grabbed 7.6 per game during the regular season. He is relentless on the offensive glass averaging 2.9 per game. Ibaka is a high-percentage shooter having shot 64.5 percent in the first round of the playoffs. He has worked to improve the range on his jump shot and is able to step away from the basket and keep his defender honest. Ibaka improved his scoring output to 9.1 points per game this season.
Pau Gasol: Gasol had a very good season for the Lakers, and he entered the playoffs playing very good basketball. Gasol averaged 19.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in the last ten games of the regular season He played in 65 of the 66 games this season and averaged 17.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. In 89 postseason contests he has recorded 17.9 points and 9.9 rebounds. However in the first round Gasol had difficulties scoring and was 4.5 points below his season average. Additionally his field goal percentage dropped from 50.0 to 42.7 percent in the first round of the playoffs. Gasol has tremendous footwork in the post, great hands and touch. He works well with Bynum because of his skill set. He has the ability to shoot the midrange jumper and draw opponents away from the rim. As a result Bynum will have room to operate in the post and Bryant will have space to attack the rim.
Kendrick Perkins: Although his status remains up in the air, Perkins is a physical low-post player who has a high basketball IQ on the defensive side of the ball. He provides toughness and low-post defense for the Thunder. He put up respectable numbers this year with 5.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game. On a team that is known for its offensive production, Perkins is their defensive anchor. He is their rim protector and has never been afraid to give a hard foul. Perkins will be assigned to Bynum and it is extremely important that he limit his effectiveness in the low post.
Andrew Bynum: Bynum stayed healthy this season, and that was a victory because that had been a struggle in the past. He played in 60 of the Lakers 66 games. Bynum put up career numbers in points 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. Bynum led the team with 12.3 rebounds in the first round versus the Nuggets. The tandem of Bynum and Gasol give the Lakers the two best big man combination in the NBA. Bynum had a 30-rebound game late in the season. In 62 career playoff games, he has posted 8.2 points and 5.9 boards. Bynum was the go-to guy in the month of April when Bryant missed games because of the injury, averaging over 20 points a game. Look for the Lakers to get him deep post touches throughout this series.
James Harden: Harden was recently named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. He had his best year in the NBA averaging a career-high 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists in 31.4 minutes per game. He also shot a career-best 49.1 percent from the field during the season and in the first round of the playoffs. Harden, Durant and Westbrook provide the Thunder with 66 percent of their scoring. Harden loves to utilize the pick-and-roll and is a tremendous playmaker coming off the pick. He has been excellent from the 3-point line attempting 4.7 shots from that range this season and making 39.0 percent. He shot 46.2 percent in the first four games of the playoffs.
Derek Fisher: Fisher was brought to the Thunder to give them veteran leadership. He has a wealth of playoff experience. Fisher is a tough, hard-nosed guard with a high basketball IQ. He averaged 8.3 points per game in the first round of the playoffs, shooting 58.3 percent from the field and 62.5 from the 3 point line. Fisher can space the court and open up driving lanes for Durant and Harden if he is in the game.
Nick Collison: Collison is a high-energy player who excels as a defender and rebounder. He does a lot of little things to help his team win. Collison is a limited offensive player, but he is an aggressive offensive rebounder, averaging 2.0 offensive boards in short minutes.
Daequan Cook: Cook will come into the game looking to score. He has excellent range on his jump shot. This season he attempted 4.0 shots from the 3 point line per game and made 35.0 percent of his shots from that distance.
Nazr Mohammed- Nazr is a big body who the Thunder will throw into the game only if they have deep foul problems. He can defend and rebound.
Steve Blake: Blake will come off the bench to spell Sessions at the point guard position and help defend Russell Westbrook. He averaged 3.2 assists per game in limited minutes this season. He has struggled from the perimeter shooting only 33.3 percent from the 3 point line. But in the first round against the Nuggets, Blake made 20-43 (46.7 percent) from the 3 point line. The Lakers will have a problem defending Westbrook and Blake most help limit his penetration into the paint.
Matt Barnes: Barnes was a valuable all-around player for the Lakers this season. He is tough, plays with energy and is a good rebounder for his size. His production increased over the last 10 games of the regular season when he averaged 10.1 points and 3.1 assists per game. Barnes is an inconsistent shooter, who shot only 33.0 percent from the 3 point line. Barnes will be asked to defend Durant and Harden at times in this series.
Jordan Hill: Hill has played limited minutes since his trade to the Lakers. However his best game as a Laker came against the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 22nd. He came off the bench to score 14 points and collect 15 rebounds. Hill provides Mike Brown with a younger more athletic frontcourt player to rest Gasol or Bynum. Hill scored 5.4 points and averaged 7.3 rebounds per game in the first round of the playoffs.
Devin Ebanks: Mike Brown will bring Devin Ebanks off the bench at the small forward position after starting him in the first round with World Peace out due to a suspension. He has been a solid role player this season, primarily as a defender and rebounder. Ebanks is a good ball handler and facilitator. His perimeter shot is suspect and he does not space the court for the Lakers big men. He played in 24 games (12 starts) this season and averaged 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 16.5 minutes.
Troy Murphy: Murphy is another guy whose minutes have dropped off. He has struggled all season on the defensive end but can still rebound and knock down open perimeter jump shots. Murphy averaged 3.0 points and 2.0 rebounds in the first round versus Denver.
Josh McRoberts: His minutes have completely dropped off as the season progressed. He is not expected to play much in this series. He can defend, rebound and is an excellent finisher around the rim.
Prediction: Thunder in five.