In what will be the most competitive second round series of the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be taking on the Los Angeles Lakers as this growing rivalry continues to gain steam. Although Los Angeles has definitely shown that it can play with just about anybody when Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol show up, the Thunder should be big favorites to win this series in convincing fashion.
Los Angeles is coming fresh off a hard-fought Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets that reinvigorated life into Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest. The game revived Gasol, Bynum and Steve Blake’s confidence as Kobe Bryant looked primarily to facilitate. A confident Laker team is a dangerous one, but Denver provided a blueprint for the Oklahoma City Thunder on how to beat LA: If Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins can play physical and aggressive defense against Bynum and Gasol, they will disappear again and the Lakers will be left with just Kobe to fend off the offensively proficient Thunder. Kevin Durant started shooting the ball better at the end of the first round and Russell Westbrook played consistently well throughout the series. Just like the Nuggets, the Thunder will also have an advantage at the point guard position, as Westbrook will be able to use his speed to get by Ramon Sessions and Blake. The only difference is that Westbrook can actually finish better than Ty Lawson at the basket, meaning the Lakers will really have their work cut out for them to stop a speedy point guard’s penetration. Meanwhile, Durant is a much better scorer than Artest faced in Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller, so he’ll have his work cut out for him on the defensive end. You can expect Durant and Westbrook to get their 20-30 points per game, but the X-factor, as always, will be James Harden.
When Artest elbowed Harden in the head in their last meeting, the Lakers were able to come back from a double-digit deficit at home because Harden was not on the floor. Harden has been the glue that holds the Thunder together and the voice of reason that attacks the basket when Durant and Westbrook start jacking up too many jump shots, evidenced by his complete takeover of Game 4 against the Mavs. Harden also has emerged as a quality defender and has been able to slow Kobe down a little bit in their previous meetings. But even if Harden didn’t have such a significant impact coming off the bench for OKC, the concussion he sustained at the hands of Artest would still serve as the galvanizing force that motivates this dangerous team to hit the Lakers with everything they’ve got. Oklahoma City is a tightly-knit unit and you can be guaranteed they wanted to play the Lakers just to have this chance for revenge.
The Thunder should be big favorites to win this series. Ibaka and Perkins shut down Dirk Nowitzki in a convincing sweep of the defending champion Mavs in the first round and should be able to limit Bynum and Gasol to some degree, especially if they lose motivation again. Steve Blake proved to be a dagger in Denver’s playoff hopes, but I seriously doubt he will continue to play at such a high level, especially against a more talented team like the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook should be able to put up their regular numbers and the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year will do damage off the bench. But most importantly, OKC has a real reason to come out and squash LA because of Artest’s ridiculous elbow to James Harden and his ignorant comments about not apologizing or shaking his hand just a few days ago. Durant, Westbrook and Harden should come out incredibly focused and look to make a statement after being eager with anticipation to get back on the court. You combine all of that with Oklahoma City’s home-court advantage and you’re looking at pretty difficult odds for the Lakers. If LA struggled with a physical and quick team like the Denver Nuggets, they’re going to really have problems against a team with a similar DNA that has even more talent. The only concern is that OKC’s time off might result in them being rusty for an important, tone-setting Game 1, but something tells me the Thunder will rise above it and play as the superior team that they are.
Prediction: Oklahoma City over Los Angeles in 6 games