Start time - 7:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
As the game wound down in Toronto, the Thunder were in a tricky spot. The lead had evaporated and for whatever reason, the closing lineup was struggling. The game came down to the last shot and we saw a moment of maturation for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
SGA is already an elite isolation scorer who has no qualms about taking big shots when the game gets tight. We have already seen him take over games and lead the Thunder to victory. In his home country, in front of his people, Shai found the best possible shot when it mattered most instead of forcing his own offense.
Gilgeous-Alexander slinked to the hole, drew the attention of the defense before casually flipping out a pass to Mike Muscala at the 3-point line. The pass was arrow straight and landed straight in Muscala’s shooting pocket. Mike was in acres of space as he coolly drained the game winning three.
As wins go, it felt like an important victory for the Thunder. The memories of the Memphis game are firmly in the rearview mirror in a week where the Thunder are 2-0. It was a team victory of the highest order and proof that the Thunder have something to build on when everybody buys in.
It is fair to say that the Thunder are buoyant coming into the Lakers’ game. Los Angeles are in a similar sort of boat at the moment. The Lakers struggled hard during the early portion of the season when Coach Vogel was still working out the roster. In the last few games, Los Angeles have looked like a more complete side.
Russell Westbrook has been the driving force of the Lakers’ improvement. Westbrook has found a chemistry with his guys and his metronomic passing is allowing him to dissect defenses in the half-court. Russell is fizzing the ball around with real energy and the Lakers are benefitting from that drive.
Westbrook’s playmaking has also allowed Coach Vogel to play LeBron off the ball a little more and get him some easier looks. LeBron James will be the Lakers’ difference maker in the postseason; Russell handling the ball allows James to rest somewhat and conserve his energy.
Vogel has also started to figure out the defense. The Lakers’ offseason involved shipping out good defensive players i.e. KCP, Kuzma and Caruso and bringing in score-first guys who are not known for their work on the less glamorous end of the floor.
Coach Vogel has realised that the big lineups involving DeAndre Jordan do not work and has gone small at the 5 more often recently. Anthony Davis or LeBron James have played there and anchored the defense. The shift in lineup has provided the Lakers with more mobility and a more solid backline.
The game will be difficult for the Thunder but the game is winnable if the Thunder can force the Lakers to settle for jumpers. Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort have key roles to play. Bazley will guard Davis and cannot allow the Chicago native to establish good inside position. Darius must use his physicality and force Davis to take tough, mid-range jumpers.
The other point worth noting is that Davis is shooting 18% on 3-pointers this season. Davis’ long ball has abandoned him this season and he has become a more one-dimensional player on the offense. The Thunder must capitalise on this weakness by sagging off in pick and pop actions.
Packing the paint and forcing Westbrook to kick out to Davis for 3-pointers makes sense. It is possible that Davis heats up from outside and makes the Thunder look foolish but I would rather him earn his points off jumpers than feasting inside.
Luguentz Dort will guard LeBron James and try to put the clamps on the 4-time NBA Champion. James is one of the most skilled basketball players of all time but his game has changed in recent years. As his motor has dwindled, he has become more reliant on his jumper. It is a common trend for ageing floor generals, Chris Paul’s shot diet changed in a similar manner as he entered the twilight of his career.
The Thunder want James to settle for these looks and for Dort to use his strength to dissuade the drive. In the four games that James has played against Luguentz Dort, he has shot 31% on 8 3-point attempts per game. For the Thunder, that is a good defensive outcome.
The game against the Lakers will be tasty and it should be a competitive game. Russell Westbrook returns home to the state where he grew into being a legend. I am certain there will be fireworks, all we have to do is sit back and enjoy.
Who wins tonight? Thunder or Lakers?
This poll is closed
Westbrook will change jerseys at halftime and win either way