NBA Playoffs Preview: 8) Oklahoma City Thunder Vs. 1) Los Angeles Lakers (Think David Vs. Goliath Only They Both Have Slingshots)

A little over a week ago, the Thunder and their fans were up in arms over poor officiating in their overtime loss to the Utah Jazz. There was good reason for the uproar. CJ Miles got away with slapping ten with Kevin Durant when the league’s leading scorer put up a game-winning attempt. The attempt fell short, the whistle of referee Tony Brothers remained silent and state of Oklahoma went nuts.

I warned that if they thought the officiating here was bad and a disaster, they should wait until they’re forced to deal with the officiating in a playoff series against the Lakers. At the time, the Thunder looked to be no worse than the sixth seed in the West. As fate would have it, they dropped to the eighth seed, setting up a showdown with the Lakers in the first round. And it certainly will be a showdown.

The war of the words has already started too. Phil Jackson came out and said that he thinks Kevin Durant is getting preferential treatment from the refs. This caused Kevin Durant to say Phil was being disrespectful. The dance begins!

This is actually perfect for Thunder fans to go through. It’s not that I want them to suffer in any way. But drawing the Lakers in the first round of their first playoff series as a new franchise (they’re basically brand new) is the equivalent of new fan base hazing. There is a certain naivety with the Thunder fan because they’ve been fortunate enough to see almost immediate success. Look at the Bobcats or the Grizzlies or the T’Wolves. Those teams didn’t get their stuff together in three years. Sure the Thunder had a head start with the remnants of the Sonics but to be a 50-win team so early is pretty damn incredible. And now they’re truly being thrown into Playoff Basketball 101.

This is what Phil Jackson does and essentially, this is what the playoffs are all about. It becomes a minefield of mind games. You have to watch your step. You’re strolling along and then all of a sudden… BOOM! Phil Jackson is working the refs through the media. You put yourself back together again, take another step and then… BOOM! Kobe Bryant is insulted at the idea of Thabo Sefolosha guarding him one-on-one.

The Kobe thing was made up but trust me, it will happen. And when it does, it’s going to piss you off. This is how the playoffs will go too. This is what happens.

BOOM! Serge Ibaka can’t seem to stay out of foul trouble.

BOOM! Jeff Green is getting push under the boards and not getting the call.

BOOM! Ron Artest just dyed Kevin Durant’s hair blonde mid-game.

BOOM! A Kardashian is stalking Eric Maynor.

These kinds of things happen when you’re facing the Lakers. This is the kind of thing that will toughen up a young, burgeoning franchise like the Thunder. It’s a good thing that they’re facing the Lakers in their first playoff series since moving to the middle of the country and it’s good that the fans will get a taste of just how frustrating the playoffs can be. Because when the Thunder eventually do win the whole damn thing and take each next step in order to do so, it’s going to feel 100 times more rewarding for the Thunder fans.

Like the title of this post says, we’re getting a showdown between David and Goliath only it looks like they both have a slingshot. David’s slingshot is accurate and deadly. He knows that someday his slingshot will take down every enemy in the land. However, Goliath isn’t alone with his slingshot.

Goliath is flanked by a slew of Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Men. And they can flat-out hit the boards.

Unfortunately for Kevin Durant, he’s the only Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man on his squad. Jeff Green is fantastic at what he does when he does it. Nenad Krstic, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka are all nice role-playing big men to have. Etan Thomas has funny hair, long arms that can challenge shots and a slew of poems to make Pau Gasol look deep inside his heart and figure out if the man in the mirror is truly happy with his beard or in need of a shave.

But they don’t have the length, size and skill of the Lakers frontcourt. If Andrew Bynum is healthy enough to play, the Lakers are going to own the boards. I mean OWN them. With the Lakers controlling every defensive rebound and getting the ball into the hands of Lamar Odom, Kobe Bryant or whatever Shannon Brown/Derek Fisher/Jordan Farmar hybrid is fronting as the point man. When that happens, the Lakers will get out and run. As good as the Thunder have been defensively this season, they are not that good with transition defense. It makes no sense to me but that’s the truth. The Lakers will know this and the Lakers will exploit this.

So What’s Something The Thunder Can Count On?
A weakness of the Lakers is a strength for the Thunder – the bench. The Lakers don’t have much to offer other than Lamar Odom off the bench. And when Andrew Bynum isn’t in uniform that means they have nothing to offer off the bench. Shannon Brown isn’t a very good NBA player. He’s a defensive athlete that isn’t that good at defense most of the time. Nobody quite knows what Jordan Farmar does out on the court. Sasha Vujacic has been in need of some maintenance for years now. Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga can be serviceable big men but at the same time they’re still Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga. Luke Walton used to play basketball but now he just draws pictures on a notepad.

This is where the Thunder can take advantage. Their best lineup this season in terms of +/- was Eric Maynor at point, James Harden at the two, Kevin Durant at the three and Serge Ibaka manning the paint with Nick Collison. When the Lakers go to their bench, the Thunder can counter with this lineup and wreak some havoc in the backcourt. Ibaka and Collison will be good enough defensively to handle the Lakers big men off the bench and possibly control the boards. They’ll also still have Durant doing Kevin Durant things on the wing.

This is how the Thunder can keep games close. When Kobe and/or Pau are out of the game, they have to either close the gap or extend the lead based on what the score is. If the bench can’t take advantage of their prowess over the Lakers bench then they are going to be struggling throughout this series.

What Will The Lakers Use To Tip The Scales?
Sometimes it’s as simple as experience when it comes to these kinds of series. A lot of people like to say that experience is overrated but it SO isn’t. The Lakers are already exemplifying how experience works by Phil Jackson setting a trap that Kevin Durant walked right into. But the biggest way the Lakers will flex their massive experience muscles will be at the end of games.

These games should be pretty close. The Lakers are 9-1 in their last 10 matchups against the Thunder and four of those games ended up being really close. The Lakers won all of them. The only game the Thunder won was a blowout late in the year on a night in which everything went right for the Thunder and everything went so very opposite for the Lakers. But when these games are close, you’re going to have to look at who has the better end of game option.

I don’t necessarily buy into the criticism that Kevin Durant isn’t clutch. Just because you miss the occasional jumper at the end of a game doesn’t mean you’re not clutch. Let’s say he never gets fouled on that play in Utah and he just flat out misses the shot. Does that lack of “clutchness” overshadow the fact that he went straight Iron Man on the Jazz when OKC was down 11 with three minutes to go? Not at all.

But look at the clutch stats according to 82games.com from this season. Kevin Durant shoots 39% from the field in the fourth quarter or overtime with less than five minutes left and neither team leading by more than five points. Kobe Bryant shoots 43.2% during these situations. Is that a huge differential? Not really. But the more telling stat to me is the way both players take care of the ball. Kobe averages 3.9 assists and 3.1 turnovers per 48 clutch minutes. He also gets assisted on just 19% of his made field goals during this time. Compare that to Durant’s 1.7 assists and 5.4 turnovers per 48 clutch minutes and the fact that Durant is assisted on more than half of his made field goals during clutch moments and that’s where I have to side with the Lakers experience, especially in crunch time over the Thunder.

Granted, I understand that the way the Lakers handle crunch time and the way the Thunder handle crunch time are completely different. But the Lakers still have a more full-proof plan at the end of games. They get the ball to Kobe and get the hell out of the way. The Thunder end up having Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant involved in a lot of plays in trying to find those clutch shots. Those are two guys that are prone to turnovers. So not only are you getting a lower percentage of shots falling with the Thunder’s best option but you also have a much lower chance of them getting the shot off due to being sloppy with the ball.

Kevin Durant is going to be a cold-blooded hitman at the end of games some day. He’s already molding his way into one. But it’s not there yet and it’s certainly not enough to beat Kobe Bryant with the refs and aura of experience emanating from him, his teammates and his head coach.

Series Prediction
Overall, I think it will be a highly competitive series. The Thunder are good defensively and they have the best scorer in all of basketball this season. They have a point guard that will feast on the inadequacy of the Lakers point guards. Russell Westbrook should be imitating what we saw from Rajon Rondo in the series against the Bulls last April. He’ll rack up triple-doubles in nearly every game. The Thunder should be able to put themselves on the map with the national audience and do so in a very positive way.

However, the Lakers will be smart about the way they approach this series. They’ll have Ron Artest hounding Kevin Durant, making life difficult in every movement on the court. Do I think Ron Artest can shut down Durant? Not at all. But he’ll make him work for everything he gets. He’ll have Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom showing hard on every screen-and-roll involving Durant. He’ll have defensive length covering nearly every inch of the halfcourt and making Durant second guess each decision. Eventually, Durant will calm down and put on an offensive display of fantastic proportions. I just don’t think it will be enough to take down the force of the Lakers in the playoffs.

I begrudgingly welcome the Thunder fans to life in the playoffs. You’re going to hate going against the Lakers. You’ll learn what many of us have experienced over a decade of dominance and calls going against your team without rhyme or reason. But you’ll be better off for it in the long run… especially with this team of yours.

Lakers Win in Six

Seth Carstens