Two years ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were the upstarts who gave the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers a serious run for their money in a first-round series that lasted six tough games. The Lakers emerged primarily on the strength of their veteran core and extensive postseason experience, while the Thunder went through growing pains that all young teams have. This time, the Thunder – two years wiser and perhaps still not at their ceiling – are the favorites, while the Lakers – two years older and refusing to leave the title contender picture without a fight – are the underdogs. One look at each team’s rotations tells you the Thunder should advance. But how they handle adversity is what likely will decide this series.
- THE RUSSELL WESTBROOK FACTOR: This may be the biggest deciding factor in this series because of the almost bipolar possibilities Westbrook brings to the table. At the high end of his sine curve, he is an explosive, game-changing attack guard whom Lakers guard Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake have no chance of stopping. It is not out of the realm of possibility for Westbrook to have a couple of 30-10 games and become a superstar in the eyes of the passive fan who just started tuning in when the playoffs began last month. At the low end, Westbrook can be a sourpuss who is easily knocked off his psychological axis. It is not out of the realm of possibility for Westbrook to be emotionally baited into poor decisions with the ball. He had just that type of game in his last visit to LA – right up the road from his hometown of Long Beach, by the way – when he shot 3-of-22 with three turnovers, including a costly one in the final minute of double overtime when he elevated with no idea what he was going to do with the ball.
- THE WORLD PEACE FACTOR: Yes, this will be the first time Metta World Peace will be on the same floor as James Harden since he tried to cave in Harden’s skull with an elbow late in the regular season, earning a seven-game suspension. After watching Harden against Dallas, you don’t get the sense he will play with any fear. But you have to wonder how the Thunder will react as a group. There were times during last year’s playoff run that they lost focus, and the psychological swirl around World Peace’s arrival already has begun. He is still trying to claim his vicious act was unintentional and said he won’t shake Harden’s hand. He figures to get a rude reception in OKC, and the small media contingent that covers the Thunder is encouraging fans to give him the silent treatment. All of this means that World Peace and his anticipated antics already are in the head of Thunder fans and media. It will be a challenge for the Thunder to tune him out and just play ball. And keep in mind that World Peace will not be defending Harden but Kevin Durant, who unraveled when the teams met two years ago in the postseason. Durant has become a tougher player since then and has to play through World Peace’s rough stuff.
- THE FRONTCOURT FACTOR: At times during the first round, the Lakers’ big tandem of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol played very small and was the primary reason the series was extended to seven games. In Game 7, however, they combined for 39 points, 35 rebounds and 10 blocks; that sort of production on a nightly basis will give the Lakers a chance to steal this series. The Thunder are certainly bigger than the Nuggets and believe they have the bigs to deal with Bynum and Gasol in Kendrick Perkins, one of the top post defenders in the game, and Serge Ibaka, who led the NBA in blocks. But if Perkins is unable to play or is limited in any way due to his hip muscle strain, that will put pressure on 6-10 Nick Collison and aging center Nazr Mohammed to play more minutes. Collison certainly is a game defender but may be a tad small to effectively slow down Bynum or Gasol for extended stretches. Mohammed had two DNPs in the first round and played just 16 total minutes. Even with a healthy Perkins on the floor, expect the Lakers to play through their bigs as much as possible.
- THE KOBE BRYANT VS. KEVIN DURANT FACTOR: Bryant has been the best clutch performer in the game for as long as anyone cares to remember. Over the last couple of seasons, Durant has emerged as possibly the second-best clutch performer, making a handful of game-tying or game-winning shots. It is no secret whom either team is going to down the stretch. A couple of games in this series will come down to which team is able to get the ball into its stud’s hands on his sweet spots, and what he does with it. But over the course of the first 40-plus minutes, Bryant may have it easier at times. Oklahoma City’s best lineup does not include Thabo Sefolosha, its designated stopper. If the Thunder opt for Sefolosha, that means Durant, Harden or Westbrook has to take a seat. And they cannot slide Durant to power forward to play Sefolosha, because they will get manhandled by Bynum and Gasol inside with only one true big on the floor. Meanwhile, the Lakers will shadow Durant with World Peace throughout the game and down the stretch, which could prevent the three-time scoring champion from getting into a rhythm that he may need in crunch time.
- THE SCHEDULE FACTOR: The Thunder have not played since sweeping the Mavericks out of the playoffs on May 5. When they take the court tonight, they will have been off for eight days – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They were not truly clicking in the first round, and the practice time should have done them some good. The time off certainly did some good for Perkins, who was able to rest his hip muscle strain and could be ready for Game 1. Meanwhile, the Lakers are coming off an unexpected seven-game series with the Nuggets, and although they could be more in rhythm at the outset of the series, their legs may start feeling like rubber at some point. In addition, the Thunder are much younger than the Lakers and should be able to handle the back-to-back games at Staples Center on Friday and Saturday much better than their opponents, who have three starters in their 30s. Unless the Thunder have lots of rust to shake off, they seem to be helped more by the schedule.
SHERIDAN: Lakers in 7.
HUBBARD: Lakers in 6.
HEISLER: Thunder in 7.
BERNUCCA: Thunder in 5.
HAMILTON: Thunder in 6.
PERKINS: Thunder in 7.
ZAGORIA: Thunder in 7.
PARK: Lakers in 6.