|Kevin Durant sent the Thunder to a 3-1 series lead. Can he send the Lakers home for the summer? (Getty Images)|
A preview of Game 5 of a Western Conference semifinals series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers.
1. Where We're At: The Thunder return to Chesapeake Energy Arena holding a 3-1 series lead over the Lakers after splitting a Friday/Saturday back-to-back in Los Angeles. Kevin Durant hit a dramatic game-winner over Metta World Peace in the closing seconds of Game 4, or the series would be tied up. The post-game talking point from the Lakers: this is still anyone's series and they should be up 3-1 rather than down 3-1. At the same time, though, there was fingerpointing from Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Bryant wanted Gasol to be more aggressive, Gasol wanted better ball movement and Bynum wanted more touches and adjustments when he gets fronted in the post. The Thunder, on the other hand, looked and sounded more unified than ever. They arrived back in OKC in the wee hours of the morning to a cheering fanbase waiting to greet them at the airport, knowing they are just one home win away from a return trip to the Western Conference Finals.
2. The Big Number: 276-274. That's the combined scores of Games 2, 3 and 4, in the Thunder's favor. That's right: the two teams are separated by just two points in over 144 minutes of gameplay. Doesn't get much closer than that. OKC, though, has won the final two minutes of those three games by a combined 22-14, including a crucial 9-0 run to close Game 2 and a 9-4 run to close Game 4. The Lakers won the final minutes of Game 3 10-4 thanks almost exclusively to a foul line parade for Kobe Bryant. In closing out their wins, the Thunder have forced turnovers, gotten to the foul line, gotten production from multiple sources (Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden) and consistently generated good looks at the hoop, all hallmarks of a championship contender.
3. Key Adjustment: Bynum has given the Lakers just 10 combined fourth quarter points in this series so far. He's right at his season average of 18 points per game during the Thunder series but, much like the rest of the Lakers, he's doing a lot of standing and watching as Bryant has taken over down the stretch. As the best center left in the playoffs, a player who has been publicly lobbying for late-game touches dating back to the All-Star break and as a man with a well-established reputation as a loose cannon, it's mildly surprising that Bynum hasn't really flipped out yet. Bigger picture, this isn't just a matter of "get the big guy involved." Whether it's more Bynum post-ups, more touches for Gasol, more ball movement earlier in possessions or perhaps the injection of Ramon Sessions into the late-game lineups, the Lakers need to find a way to diversify their late-game offense in Game 5 or they are likely to see the same results.
4. The Big Story: The possibility of a Western Conference Finals showdown between the NBA's two best teams -- the Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs -- is the looming carrot for OKC. The Spurs have plowed through the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers with a perfect 8-0 record. Aside from an obvious age difference, the two teams share many qualities: super-efficient offenses, deep benches, dynamic point guard play, top-shelf sixth men, cornerstone franchise players and a team-first commitment that serves as the foundation for all the rest of it.
Although they've handled the challenges with grace and skill, OKC's run through the playoffs has been decidedly more difficult than San Antonio's. The Thunder drew the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and the Lakers, experienced, tested and mind game masters, while the Spurs got the not-ready-yet Utah Jazz and a banged-up, newly-formed Clippers squad that didn't fold, but never stood much of a chance. Thunder coach Scott Brooks has played Westbrook and Durant heavy minutes and the star duo didn't miss a single game in the compressed lockout schedule. Taking care of business on Monday would make life that much easier, giving OKC nearly a week to prepare before the West Finals commence on Sunday.
5. The Facts: 9:30 p.m. ET tipoff. All players for both sides should be good to go, although Thunder center Kendrick Perkins has been dealing with a strained right hip.