May 3, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) relaxes before game three in the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. The Thunder defeated the Mavericks 95-79. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE
And so it begins. The rivalry that really began in the 2010 playoffs and continued through the last two regular seasons now returns us back to the playoffs. As an added bonus, we get to experience the drama of how the Thunder players and fans will react in seeing Metta World Peace walk onto the court.
Since Game 1 is always an uneven affair (and will likely be even more-so given the Thunder's extensive downtime between series), here are a few questions worth paying attention to:
Game 1 will likely come down to energy level between the two teams. The Lakers should have more of it in the beginning, since they just came off an emotional affair against the speedy Nuggets, while the Thunder have been in practice-mode for the past 10 days. The question is, how quickly can the Thunder get re-engaged with the Lakers? A quarter? A half?
Kobe Bryant played a very good first round against the Nuggets, but Denver is not exactly known as a defensive team. A big part of OKC's strategy against LA is to count on Thabo Sefolosha's ability to defend Kobe straight-up without much help. Can Thabo do it? Kobe will score, no doubt, but the way in which he beat the Nuggets was when they had to double-team him and Kobe started to find open shooters on the perimeter.
Speaking of which, who are the Lakers' shooters, and will they be ready to step up? OKC is notorious for struggling on the defensive perimeter, especially defending corner-3's, thus making it all the more critical for the Thunder to be able to handle Kobe without having to bring extra help. If OKC makes it too easy on the Lakers' shooters - Steve Blake, Ramon Sessions, & Matt Barnes - everything else gets compromised.
In a similar fashion, OKC's defense of Andrew Bynum will be critical, especially since we don't yet know how healthy Kendrick Perkins is. If Perkins is healthy, he can body up with Bynum better than most and limit Bynum's effectiveness, which leads to the real key -
How will OKC defend Pau Gasol? OKC always struggles with mobile big men who can both shoot and pass. I believe that if they are going to provide a stress point on any player, it will be Gasol. However, OKC cannot accomplish this if Sefolosha and Perkins are not able to cover their men effectively one-on-one.
In conclusion, you probably noticed that every question I have at this point revolves around OKC's defense against the Lakers. The Thunder can score enough points to win, but it is going to come down to how many offensive options they can take away from LA to pave their path toward victory in Game 1.
Prediction: A tale of two halves, and OKC wins the more important one - Thunder 100, Lakers 95
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