May 3, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) looks to set the play against the Dallas Mavericks during game three in the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the American Airlines Center. The Thunder defeated the Mavericks 95-79. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Lakers: Series Preview

The Oklahoma City Thunder will finally start playing basketball again tonight after nine days off from their last game. The Thunder will be hosting Game 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers at 9:30 p.m. EST.

The Thunder are eager to get back on the court but are also thankful for the rest so that their starting center, Kendrick Perkins, could rest after injuring his hip in Game 4 against the Dallas Mavericks. It is still uncertain if he will play tonight.

The Thunder have been taking steps very quickly over the past few years toward becoming a true title contender. They made it to the Western Conference Finals last year, swept the defending champs in Round 1 and now will look to take that next step beating the mighty Los Angeles Lakers.

The Thunder are favored in this series and should be. They’ve been one of the best teams all season long really coming to play each and every night while the Lakers are a team known to take nights off.

The Lakers had their ups and downs in their first round series against the Denver Nuggets who took them to seven games. The Lakers were able to take advantage of their considerable size advantage in the final game and close out the pesky, energetic Nuggets.

The Lakers will not have that luxury now in Round 2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

The Big Men

The play of the bigs in this series is going to be one of the most important matchups to watch. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are both All-Star caliber players but don’t always play like it.

The Thunder don’t get much offense from their bigs but Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison are all very vital to the team’s success and will be even more so in this series.

Perkins’ status is still uncertain but very crucial for the Thunder. They traded for Perkins last year for this specific matchup with the Lakers and for his defense on Bynum.

Perkins averaged 26.8 minutes per game in the regular season but played 36.0 minutes per game in three meetings against the Lakers.

Ibaka will also be very important and not just on defense. He led the league in blocks and finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting and has had success against the Lakers in the past.

Ibaka had a sort of coming out party is rookie season in the playoffs against the Lakers blocking seven shots in one of the games. Ibaka is always an X-factor for the Thunder and if the Thunder can get him some scoring opportunities as well it will bode well for Ibaka’s confidence on both ends of the floor.

Ibaka had the impossible task of guarding Dirk Nowitzki in Round 1 so it will be somewhat easier checking Gasol now who hasn’t been playing his best ball of late.

In three games against the Lakers this season, Ibaka averaged 12.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 4.3 blocks. He steps up his game against L.A., there’s no question.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook is going to need to be huge in this series to ensure a Thunder victory. The Lakers do not have the point guards to matchup with Westbrook and he will need to take advantage.

Westbrook had a nice series against Dallas and reverted to sort of a defensive stopper as the series progressed, shutting down Jason Terry. He won’t be asked to play as much defense against the Lakers however.

The litmus test for Westbrook’s game is always his midrange pull-up jump shot. It was on point against Dallas as he noticeably was shooting it with better form. He’s going to be able to get to his spots and take that shot in this series. Whether or not it is going in early on will tell you a lot about how he will play.

When Westbrook is not making that shot he gets out of rhythm and less under control and begins forcing drives and throwing his body at those protecting the paint. He can have success doing this too and getting to the line but it will be a tough challenge against the Lakers and Bynum and Gasol.

We may see Kobe Bryant on Westbrook some in this series too and he did a nice job against him in the last regular season meeting between these teams. Westbrook went 3-for-22 in that game and gets out of sorts against defenders like Kobe or even Dwyane Wade.

It is unlikely however that the Lakers will want to put Kobe on Westbrook too much because they are going to need him to be more efficient on offense.

Kobe Bryant

Kobe shot just 30 percent against the Thunder in the regular season. He’s been playing better of late but the Thunder have more to throw at him than Denver did.

Thabo Sefolosha can play Kobe straight up without a double team which will lure Kobe into becoming a high-volume shooter at times and that’s what Oklahoma City wants.

Kobe was very clutch at the end of the last meeting between these teams and hit a ton of big shots and the Lakers might be able to count on him in situations like that. But since Oklahoma City should be able to contain the Lakers bigs it will be up to Kobe to be a more efficient scorer for them or for the role players to really step up, but that seems even more unlikely.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Kevin Durant vs. Metta World Peace

Kevin Durant is going to be important like he always is for the Thunder but it won’t be the prettiest we see him play, that’s for sure.

Metta World Peace has always done a solid job on Durant and physical defenders usually have the most success against him. Durant really struggled in the playoffs two years ago against World Peace but he has improved in that department since.

The Thunder did a lot of posting up of Durant in the first round and against World Peace that will be a tough thing to rely on. He is in the best shape he has been in awhile and unless referees are really bailing Durant out, it’s unlikely he will be too productive from there. Durant has a long way to go with his post game and he might be more effective looking to score from the perimeter in this series.

Durant – like Westbrook – really struggled from the field in the last game the Thunder played the Lakers. But he got a ton of open jumpers that he normally doesn’t miss. Durant has been more locked in during the postseason and if he’s getting those looks consistently in this series, points will come very easy to him.


The Beard

James Harden went to another level in Game 4 against the Dallas Mavericks scoring 15 points in the final quarter to help the Thunder erase a 13-point deficit and win.

Thunder fans will know though that Harden has been at this level all season. The key is that the Thunder are willing to go to him down the stretch even with Durant and Westbrook on the floor with him.

Harden is certainly the biggest X-factor for the Thunder. We all know what happened the last time he stepped on the floor with Metta World Peace so don’t think Harden won’t be extra motivated in this series.

While Harden was needed to step up against the Mavericks it may not be as necessary against the Lakers mainly because Westbrook should be having a big series offensively. Harden will still be needed to be a reliable 3-point shooter and run the offense well with the second unit.

The Crowd

The Oklahoma City Thunder have the best crowd in the NBA. They aren’t going to be too welcoming toward Metta World Peace when he is announced as a starter for Game 1 either.

This probably won’t do much to World Peace (you know, because he’s insane), but some extra rowdiness will be a great thing for the Thunder players.

The Thunder may not come out as sharp as usual with such a long layoff in between games so having the crowd on another level will be a great advantage for the Thunder to avoid losing one of these first two games.

The Verdict

The Thunder should win this series and if the Lakers didn’t have Kobe and didn’t have the history, no one would be questioning the outcome.

Everything is happening so fast though for the Thunder. They are still so young and no matter how talented you are, there are growing pains. If Kobe can miraculously lead this Lakers squad to upset the Thunder it wouldn’t be totally unbelieveable.

That shouldn’t happen though. Not to this Thunder team. They may still have some growing pains ahead of them before they can win a title but that’s not going to be now.

After beating these Lakers on the grand stage that it will be on, whoever has to play OKC in the next round should be a lot scared of them.

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Tags: Andrew Bynum Game 1 James Harden Kendrick Perkins Kevin Durant Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers Metta World Peace Nick Collison Oklahoma City Thunder Pau Gasol Russell Westbrook Second Round Serge Ibaka Thabo Sefolosha Western Conference Semifinals

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