Western Conference semifinals preview: OKC Thunder vs. L.A. Lakers

By Ben Golliver | Blogger
Kevin Durant's Thunder and Kobe Bryant's Lakers will begin their second round series on Monday. (Getty Images)

Previewing the Western Conference Semifinals series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers.

How They Got Here

Oklahoma City Thunder:
The West's No. 2 seed with a record of 47-19. Beat Dallas Mavericks in 4 games.

Los Angeles Lakers:
The West's No. 3 seed with a record of 41-25. Beat Denver Nuggets in 7 games.

Biggest Strength

Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder emerged as one of the NBA's truly elite teams this season on the backs of a super efficient offense, constructed around scoring champ Kevin Durant, the league's leading scorer, an All-Star point guard in Russell Westbrook who can create his own shot at will and make plays for others, and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, who provides a third scoring option late in games who also happens to have uncanny vision and decision-making. In the regular season, OKC had the second best offense in the league, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs. Ditto for the postseason. While a number of postseason games have been played in the 70s and low-80s, the Thunder averaged 99.8 points per game in sweeping the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in the first round.

Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers didn't look consistently great on either side of the ball as they struggled through a 7-game series with the Denver Nuggets in the first round, but their size and skill in the post won out in Game 7. When he decides he wants to pay attention, Andrew Bynum is the best center remaining in the playoffs, by a mile. His presence and activity opens up opportunities for Pau Gasol, and the pair combined for a ridiculous 39 points, 35 rebounds, 7 assists and 10 blocks in Game 7 versus the Nuggets. Oklahoma City has good frontcourt depth, especially if Kendrick Perkins is available after suffering a hip injury against Dallas, but the likes of Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison simply can't match L.A.'s interior firepower. Kobe Bryant won't be able to win this series alone; it will take big numbers from all three of L.A.'s stars to spring the upset.

Biggest Weakness

Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder turned over the ball on a greater percentage of their plays (26.5) than any other team during the regular season. Much of that is attributed to the high-risk, high-reward style of play favored by Westbrook, who prefers to relentlessly attack a defense and live with the consequences rather than passively ball-protect. The good news: OKC's turnover rate against the Mavericks dropped to 22.7, a better-than-average rate among playoff teams, and Westbrook averaged 2.5 per game, down from 3.6 in the regular season. Of course, the turnovers are only as bad as their impact on OKC's offensive flow, especially late in games. The Thunder were bounced from the 2011 playoffs because they could not consistently generate good shots in the fourth quarter.

Los Angeles Lakers: Depth is the bugaboo for L.A., who got consistent production from just five or six players throughout the Denver series. In fact, L.A.'s bench averaged 19 points per game against the Nuggets, barely better than the 18.6 points per game that Harden averaged against the Mavericks by himself. Steve Blake has been L.A.'s most reliable reserve in the playoffs and his 19 points in Game 7 were critical. Whether he's capable of getting that hot again is anybody's guess. The short rotation used by coach Mike Brown saw Bryant average 40+ minutes against the Nuggets with both Gasol and Bynum topping 40 on multiple occasions. To make matters worse, the Lakers are going from one track meet to another. The Nuggets were No. 2 in pace during the regular season while the Thunder were No. 5.

X-Factor

Oklahoma City Thunder: Harden is a tempting choice as X-factor but he's such a key component and he plays such heavy minutes, especially in crunchtime, that starting two guard Thabo Sefalosha is probably a better choice. Sefalosha will once again fill the designated "guy to annoy Kobe Bryant as much as possible" role, a job he has approached with selflessness and commitment. Bryant never got off against OKC during the regular season, averaging 24.3 points per game and shooting a combined 23-for-75 (30.7 percent). A repeat of those numbers would make it impossible for L.A. to keep up offensively in this series. Of course, Bryant always cranks it up in the postseason. Sefalosha might not be defending Bryant on game-deciding possessions but his early work will be important in helping limit the future Hall of Famer's overall output.

Los Angeles Lakers: The Game 7 return of Metta World Peace was a major swing against Denver, as his ability to limit both Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller helped push L.A. over the top. Having World Peace available from the start of the Thunder series is big for L.A., who otherwise would be ill-equipped to defend the Durant/Westbrook/Harden trio. As the postseason pressure continues to mount and World Peace is subjected to a hostile environment, his ability to conduct himself better than he did in last year's second round or when he elbowed Harden earlier this season will be of paramount importance to the Lakers. L.A. simply cannot survive another meltdown.

Match-Up Advantage

Oklahoma City Thunder: The point guard position has been L.A.'s hole. It was exposed again against the Nuggets, with Ty Lawson averaging 19 points and 6 assists per game and getting to the hoop seemingly at will. The problem gets worse thanks to Westbrook, who has the quickness to destroy either Ramon Sessions or Steve Blake off the dribble plus the athleticism and leaping ability to finish above the Lakers' big men. L.A. can use Bryant against Westbrook but that requires a ton of defensive energy and likely isn't a sustainable strategy. The Lakers will do what they can to get Westbrook to revert to bad habits (turnovers, poor shot selection) and may try to rough him up or set off his quick temper if conventional defensive methods don't suffice.

Los Angeles Lakers: Bynum against Perkins and company is L.A.'s most reliable bet. Bryant has the ability to outproduce Harden but L.A.'s supporting perimeter cast is unlikely to keep up with the Thunder's star-studded wings. The potential advantage is in the middle thanks to Bynum, who averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds against the Thunder during the regular season and is as unguardable as NBA centers get when he is getting the touches his talent demands and decides to show up ready to play. Bynum is an enigma and looked to have checked out multiple times against the Nuggets; half-hearted play or a disengaged attitude simply won't work against the win-obsessed Thunder.

Will Win If...

Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder will win if they stick to the script: Force-feed Durant, feast on their point guard mismatch, use heavy doses of Harden late, defend aggressively and hit the boards hard as a team. OKC doesn't need to play above its head to win four out of seven, especially with an excellent home court advantage (28-7 at home this season, including the playoffs).

Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers will prevail if they get a signature effort from Kobe Bryant, steady and focused play from Andrew Bynum, some help from their perimeter shooters, and if OKC relapses in the ball control and shot selection departments. In other words, a lot has to go right.

Prediction: Thunder in six.
 
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