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Preview: Thunder suit up for Kobe's last road dance with Lakers

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The man who engaged in two thrilling playoff series with OKC is drawing his career to a close.

Kobe is too old for this ish!
Kobe is too old for this ish!
W. Bennett Berry

It's Kobe's second to last game. The Thunder and Lakers are pretty much locked where they are in the standings, so the ultimate outcome of this game is meaningless. However, Coach Donovan has thus far only sat the Thunder's stars on the second end of a back to back. Given the historical nature of this game, I'm betting that the Thunder will trot out a full lineup today. The Thunder will probably sit players tomorrow at the Spurs, though.

Kobe's history with Oklahoma City has been long and storied. I remember how loud OKC's crowd got when Kobe came to the Ford Center for the first time. Back on February 4th, 2006, the Oklahoma City Hornets managed to defeat the Lakers at home. It was a big deal at the time, because the Hornets were coming off of an 18 win season. Kobe's Lakers were only a .500 team at the time, but it was still amazing to see Kobe shoot so well (13 of 26) and have him lose by 16 points. Rookie Chris Paul led the way for OKC, with 19 points, 13 assists, and 7 rebounds.

Kobe vs. Thunder in 2010 Playoffs

Kobe's history with OKC is perhaps best picked back up in the Thunder era, when the Thunder had to face Kobe in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. The Lakers were the #1 seed in the West, and coming off of an NBA championship from the previous year. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum provided scoring support for Kobe down low, while Lamar Odom led the bench. Meanwhile, the Thunder were a young upstart 8 seed. OKC had never seen the playoffs before, and neither had any of the stars on the roster at the time.  But the Thunder were better than their record indicated, as they lost a three way tie for the sixth seed, and were only 7 games behind the first place Lakers.

It was an exciting series. Game 1 saw the Laker defense suffocate the Thunder on their home floor. Game 2 saw the Thunder come really close to winning, but KD clanked a three on the final possession. Game 3 saw the Lakers go to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder were able to eek out a win. Kobe went 1 of 9 from the field in the fourth quarter, thanks to the superb D of young Thabo Sefolosha. Game 4 saw the Thunder romp, but Game 5 saw the Lakers romp in Los Angeles.

This put the Thunder back up against the wall for Game 6. It was that game that is known as the loudest to ever be played in Oklahoma City. It got really gritty in the final two minutes. Neither team could score, and it left the Lakers with the ball with 18 seconds left. Kobe went to his patented fade in an isolation with Westbrook. It was no good. But in the final second, Pau Gasol was able to tip the ball in. The Lakers won the game, and the series. At that point, it was obvious that the Thunder would need to bulk up to win. Only Collison and Ibaka were in the game as big men at the time, and neither stood a chance of boxing out Gasol on the regular.

Kobe vs. Thunder in 2012 Playoffs

The next time the Thunder would meet the Lakers in the playoffs would be two years later, in 2012. This time, it was the second round, and the circumstances had flip-flopped. The Thunder were still young, but they were the #2 seed in the West, had just swept the Mavericks, and were coming off of a Western Conference Finals appearance. Meanwhile, the Lakers were looking old and lacked depth. Lamar Odom no longer came off the bench for them, replaced by Ramon Sessions as the sixth man. Sessions was a decent replacement in terms of points and assists. But World Peace's offense had tanked significantly. And the Lakers were definitely missing the steady hands of Fisher and Brown off the bench.

The Thunder's revenge turned out to be swift, through not without difficulty. Game 1 was complete Thunder domination at home. Game 2  was a lot more dicey. With 2:08 to go, Andrew Bynum backed down Serge Ibaka and hit a layup. This put the Lakers up by 7. But OKC had a response. Harden scored at the rim. KD stole the inbounds pass for an easy bucket.  A missed Kobe three led to Harden splitting three defenders to score in transition. And a final missed Kobe shot gave the Thunder the ball back. With under 24 seconds left, KD scored a floater between the double team of Gasol and Bynum. This put the Thunder up by 1, and they would go on to win the game.

Game three was another tough one for OKC. In the final 92 seconds of the game, Kobe scored 8 points. The Thunder were okay, but their final offensive possession was handled really terribly. It ended up with a Serge Ibaka fade that went out, and the Lakers were able to secure the ball with the lead. OKC would get one final chance to tie, but KD's miracle three bobbled out of the rim.

Game 4 saw the Thunder finally take the essential win they needed in Los Angeles. But again, things came down to the wire. With 1:04 to go, the game was tied 98-98. Westbrook went into the pick and roll, but Jordan Farmar stole his pass. On the other end, Pau Gasol was wide open from mid-range, but didn't take his shot and threw a turnover to KD. The Thunder held the ball, and KD rose for a game-winning three over Metta World Peace at the top of the arc. Kobe had a chance to tie, but the shot was somewhat contested by KD. OKC took a 3-1 series lead at this point, and had no trouble closing things out in Game 5.

After 2012, the memories of Kobe start to fade. The Thunder went 2-1 against the Lakers in the '12-13 season. The Lakers were supposed to be good that year, having added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. But chemistry, age, and injury issues all combined to make the Lakers nothing more than a low playoff seed. 13-14 and 14-15 saw Kobe out with major injury. And then you have this season, where Kobe has been a shell of himself.

Tonight's Game

But with tonight being Kobe's second to last game, you can rest assured that he's going to jack up shots. Not extremely or anything, but Kobe's definitely being used as the primary scorer on the Lakers. Kobe will close the game if it's close as well. But Kobe may have a hard time keeping things competitive if Byron Scott sits his players again. Lou Williams and Brandon Bass were apparently rested in the Lakers' game against the Pelicans on Saturday. Without them, the Laker bench is really lacking in shot creators.

That's bad if the Lakers want to win tonight. The first two Laker-Thunder matchups this season were blowouts in favor of OKC. But the third one saw the Lakers bring it close, thanks to strong play from sixth man Lou Williams. From my recap of the January 8th narrow victory:

Lou Williams scored a career-high 44 points. In other words, the Thunder continued their time-honored tradition of failing to guard random wing players from other teams. Dion Waiters certainly deserves some of the blame. But really, it was a fast paced game where the Thunder defense just couldn't quite get set most of the time. Williams had an easy time navigating with the ball around screens on the perimeter, and certainly didn't encounter any resistance from Enes Kanter at the rim.

The Thunder offense has never had any trouble producing against the Lakers this year, so it's really up to the defense to seal this game up. That means OKC will have to make a commitment to guarding the three point arc. The Lakers have the league's lowest three point percentage, yet take the thirteenth most threes every game. As long as the Thunder can hold the Lakers to their averages from three and not gamble for too many steals, this should be an easy win. Even if some Thunder players do sit, which I highly doubt.

On a personal level, it's gonna be really strange to see Kobe leave the game. When Kobe was a rookie, I was just 5 years old. I hadn't even picked up my first NBA video game yet, let alone held a basketball. Seeing the Lakers without Kobe's presence will be downright surreal from my perspective.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 106, Los Angeles Lakers 92.

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

2015-16 NBA Season Game 81
@
16-63
(Lost 4)

54-26
(Lost 2)
April 11th, 2016
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Daylight Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Time Warner Cable Sports Net
Injury Report: Lou Williams (Out), Brandon Bass (Out), Nick Young (Out), Anthony Brown (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Dec 20 (W 118-78), Dec 24 (W 120-85), Jan 8 (W 117-113)
Probable Starters
D'Angelo Russell PG Russell Westbrook
Jordan Clarkson SG Andre Roberson
Kobe Bryant SF Kevin Durant
Julius Randle PF Serge Ibaka
Roy Hibbert C Steven Adams