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Revitalized Thunder face surprisingly motivated Lakers

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Kobe's actually playing well, but not as well as KD.

#LetMyWestbrookBeWestbrook
#LetMyWestbrookBeWestbrook
W. Bennett Berry

Most see this as a lost season for the Lakers. Los Angeles is saying farewell to Kobe, as he sits on the most untradeable contract in the entire NBA. Meanwhile, the Lakers must have their Draft pick land in the top 3 in order to keep it. Thus, with the Lakers well out of playoff contention, it would be in the team's best interest to lose.

Kobe-mania

Thus far, the Lakers have managed to lose by featuring Kobe as the centerpiece of their offense. Bryant will take roughly 17 shots a game when he plays. For comparison, that's about the same amount of shots that KD takes. Early in the season, this clearly wasn't working. Through his first 20 games, Kobe was averaging 31% from the field, and getting to the line four times a game. But, unbelievably, Kobe has actually seen his efficiency increase as of late. In the past 10 games, Kobe is averaging 42% from the field and getting to the line six times a game.

Kobe's increased efficiency is due to the increased teamwork among the Lakers. You can just see that Kobe is more comfortable working within the offense. In other words, there are more plays set up for Kobe off of the ball, and teammates are finding him when he's open. And when the Laker offense becomes a little bit less predictable, then the pressure leaves Kobe when he actually has the ball. This allows him to do more.

Behind the Lakers

But enough Kobe. All three of the recent Laker wins had nothing to do with Kobe. Instead, you have to credit the young talent that the Lakers are developing. #1 on that list is Jordan Clarkson. Clarkson has averaged 18 points a game over his last five, while equaling his season efficiency. The Lakers have been able to use Clarkson as their primary point guard, as he works masterfully around screens. Give Clarkson a little bit of space, and he'll hit any finesse shot inside of 12 feet. Clarkson's quickness and athleticism are also something to behold, especially in transition.

Below Clarkson, there are a number of young Laker players who don't contribute every night, but seem to have flashes of potential. D'Angelo Russell is perhaps the most famous of them all, as he was drafted #2 last year. There's definite potential in Russell, as he erupted for a career-high 27 points just last night against Sacramento. It's unsurprising that Russell scored so well against the Kings. Russell works best when running in transition, and the Kings are the fastest paced team in the NBA. Russell also works well when running to the basket, but doesn't have an array of moves as of yet. As such, Russell can be prone to bad shooting nights.

The other Lakers with potential are Larry Nance Jr. and Julius Randle. Neither of them has been anything special when it comes to scoring. But both of them are athletic, can rebound well, and can pass well. Nance is the better decision maker of the two, and appears to be the better dunker. Randle, meanwhile, is more of a pure power player.

There's also a strong presence of veterans on this Laker club. Lou Williams, Brandon Bass, and Roy Hibbert are all in their late 20s, have played for winning teams in the NBA, and joined the Lakers this off-season. Williams has been the flashiest scorer of the bunch. He's really skilled when it comes to navigating around defenders and shooting off the dribble. Brandon Bass is the bulky rebounder, providing a more refined version of what Julius Randle is supposed to be. And Roy Hibbert is the big man in the middle. He's mostly pretty bad, but he did have a decent game against the Suns.

I'd also like to take a moment to recognize some strange...."intangible" presences that exist on the Laker bench, and may or may not come into play. These guys don't have anything to do with the recent winning, but I feel like any of them could step up and be a factor tonight. There's Nick Young, the unabashed scorer who never saw a shot he didn't like. There's also Marelinho Heurtas, the 32 year old rookie. Huertas led the Brazilian national team to a two point loss to the USA during the 2010 World Championship. (KD and Westbrook played in that game.) There's even Metta World Peace. After spending last season in China and Europe, the 36 year old World Peace somehow returned to the NBA last season. World Peace was a major factor during the 2011 and 2012 Thunder-Lakers playoff series. During those series, World Peace had on-court confrontations with James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, and Thabo Sefolosha.

Thunder Update: KD rolls, Collison vs. Singler, and Payne's Progress

The Thunder appear to be doing just fine. Nobody's happy about the loss to the Kings on Monday, but the Thunder bounced right back for a easy win against the Grizzlies on Wednesday. Kevin Durant didn't play in the game against the Kings due to a toe injury. That was especially unfortunate, as the Kings don't have a wing defender that can match up with KD. But KD didn't seem slowed down when he returned on Wednesday against the Grizzlies. He scored 26 points, shot 50%, and grabbed a whopping 17 rebounds.

The Thunder's front line was essential against the Grizzlies. Neither Marc Gasol nor Zach Randolph could seem to find any kind of consistent success. The credit for that defense goes to Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and even a bit of Enes Kanter. Collison is a particularly good sub against the Grizzlies, as he's had a lot of success defending Zach Randolph in the past. But these minutes were new for Collison. Collison hasn't played serious minutes in the three games before Wednesday. In Collison's place had been Kyle Singler. Singler appeared to have earned playing time with decent defense and heady offensive plays, but he didn't see real time against the Grizzlies.

Regardless of those two, Cameron Payne is definitely locked in as the Thunder's backup point guard. Payne offers a lot of ups and downs with his play, but it's nice to know that Donovan is willing to trust Payne late in the game. The ups for Payne primarily comes when he's shooting three pointers, or nailing a ridiculously tough floater. The downs come when Payne is committing silly fouls on defense, or taking tough shots. But Payne rarely turns the ball over, and his defense is so much better than Augustin's. So really, I'm not complaining.

How tonight's game will go

The Thunder have a serious advantage here, as the Lakers don't match up with Durant or Westbrook very well. In the two meetings so far this season, Durant and Westbrook have not shot below 45%. In fact, Durant and Westbrook played so well that neither of them has had to cross the 30 minute threshold.

Tactically, the Lakers will try to account for this by doubling Westbrook. But Westbrook isn't afraid to pass the ball off on every possession, and the Lakers defense is so weak that even Adams and Roberson haven't had trouble scoring. Seriously. Adams is faster than Roy Hibbert, and Roberson is way bigger than whomever he'll be facing.

The bench is where I could see this game evening out. Generally, I expect Kanter to be able to get his due against whomever the Lakers send out in the paint. Even if Waiters, Payne, and Morrow have bad games, I expect Kanter to get at least 15 points. That will be the key to carrying OKC's bench tonight.

In any case, the only universe where the Lakers win is the one where Kobe outperforms KD tonight. Not gonna happen.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 128, Los Angeles Lakers 109.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2015-16 NBA Season Game 37
@
25-11
(Won 1)

8-29
(Lost 2)
January 8th, 2016
The Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
9:30 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Entertainment Sports Programming Network, Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Time Warner Cable Sports Network
Injury Report: Kobe Bryant (Who Knows, but really, who knows?)
This Season's Matchups: Dec 20 (W 118-78), Dec 24 (W 120-85)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Jordan Clarkson
Andre Roberson SG Lou Williams
Kevin Durant SF Kobe Bryant
Serge Ibaka PF Larry Nance, Jr.
Steven Adams C Roy Hibbert