Like most NBA observers, I expected the first round playoff series between the L.A. Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder to be interesting but still I underestimated it. I figured this series would follow a well worn narrative of a young playoff novice putting a small scare into the sage and savvy defending champions. Yet if after these first four games any Thunder fan that doesn't think their team can win is a hardy cynic. The Thunder's performance in games 3 and 4 feel more sustainable than the Lakers in games 1 and 2.
Okay, I know, I know, that's easy to say after the Thunder's 110-89 win on Saturday night, but it was exactly the vehemence of that win that led me to question the narrative at work here. These two teams were thought to be close and upon further examination some trends should give Lakers fans reason to worry. First of all the two teams second half of the season performance actually favors the Thunder who went 22-13 after the All Star break to the Lakers 18-14. More importantly, the Thunder are a very poor matchup for the Lakers. Just as happened with Aaron Brooks of the Houston Rockets in Lakers second round series last year, the L.A. defense is struggling to contain a speedy point guard. In this case, it's the Thunder's Russell Westbrook who is blowing holes through the Lakers defense.
What's worse, the Thunder's defensive strength capitalizes on the Lakers biggest weakness. The Lakers are not a good 3 point shooting team. during the regular season they ranked 24th at .341; they simply cannot stretch the floor. That's damning flaw against the Thunder whose perimeter defenders are Westbrook (6'3"), Thabo Sefolosha (6'7") and Kevin Durant (6'9"), tall guys for their positions with active arms. The Thunder run off steals and they get more deflections than any team in the league. The Lakers offense has ground to a crawl. During the regular season the Lakers averaged 105.9 points per 100 possessions; through four games with the Thunder they are scoring only 98 points per 100 possessions.
The Lakers still have two solid points in their favor, home court advantage (and the Thunder have yet to win a road playoff game), and Kobe Bryant. Bryant was a nonfactor in Games 3 and 4. He will have to be Kobe Bryant, Superstar, in Game 5 for the Lakers to have any sort of chance. The Thunder are packing the middle and keeping the ball from the Lakers big men, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. In other words the games on Tuesday and Friday should come down to the Lakers offense versus the Oklahoma City defense. OKC is winning the battle so far and they have served notice that they will likely be an elite team really really soon, but winning in Staples is still a big step.
If I were a betting man, I'd take a pass. The numbers point to OKC but betting against the defending champs at home in a key game doesn't seem like a sound play either.