This isn't your typical 1-8 series. While most coverage will focus on the obvious differences between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder--for example, you might have noticed that one of the two teams won the championship last season while the other won 23 games--by the numbers, the similarities are much more striking. The Lakers' Offensive Rating was 0.2 points per 100 possessions better than the Thunder's over the course of the season. Their Defensive Rating was 0.6 points per 100 possessions better. That's all that separated the two teams during the regular season.
The question, then, is whether this year's Lakers team has another level to go to come the postseason. Certainly, there was limited motivation for the Lakers in the month of April, with the top spot in the Western Conference Playoffs long since wrapped up. (The Lakers did see Orlando finish with a superior record, meaning both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Magic would have home-court advantage in potential NBA Finals matchups.) But the Lakers also looked somewhat vulnerable, with Kobe Bryant continuing to battle a broken right index finger, Andrew Bynum sidelined by a strained left Achilles tendon and Derek Fisher aging.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City did little to quiet concerns about its youth during the month of April. The Thunder lost four of its final six games, including a major letdown at Golden State last Sunday and a loss to the Brandon Roy-less Trail Blazers in Portland that sent the Thunder tumbling to the eighth seed. While most of the Lakers' regulars won championship rings last season, Oklahoma City's three top players in minutes (Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook) will all be making their playoff debuts.
WHEN THE LAKERS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 91.4 possessions per 48 minutes (14th NBA)
Lakers Offensive Rating: 110.4 points per 100 possessions (11th NBA)
Oklahoma City Defensive Rating: 105.9 points per 100 possessions (8th NBA)
All eyes will be on Thabo Sefolosha in this series. Stoppers Raja Bell and Bruce Bowen solidified their reputations in the eyes of casual fans by dueling with Bryant on a national stage during the postseason, and Sefolosha--selected to the Basketball Prospectus All-Defensive First Team--will have that same opportunity. It's hard to add anything to the phenomenal breakdown of this matchup Chris Ballard did for SI.com, but I will note Bryant was reasonably effective overall against Oklahoma City, averaging 27.0 points and shooting 51.4 percent on two-pointers in four games.
The other interesting matchup here will be Pau Gasol against a variety of Thunder defenders. Assuming Bynum comes off the bench, Nenad Krstic figures to start on Gasol, but reserve Nick Collison is the far better matchup. Collison has the strength to make Gasol work to establish defensive position. What could be an issue for both Collison and fellow backup Serge Ibaka in this series will be foul trouble against Gasol, the bigger Bynum and a driving Bryant.
Despite the presence of two star players, the Lakers' offense was nothing special this season. In a March column, I traced the issue largely to the team's lagging ball movement. A lack of outside shooting was also a major problem. Jordan Farmar was the lone Laker regular to make more than 35.5 percent of his tries from beyond the arc. The 2008-09 Lakers were also unspectacular from long distance, but forwards Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom caught fire from three-point range during the postseason, making up for a Fisher slump. The Lakers can't count on getting that same kind of boost again this season. At some point, Fisher is no longer slumping and we have to accept that he is no longer the antidote to double-teams he once was.
Besides getting Bynum back in some capacity, the Lakers will also have Luke Walton available. Walton returned to play in five April games and will step into the rotation for Sasha Vujacic after The Machine suffered a severely sprained left ankle in the season finale.
On the other side, Oklahoma City was one of the league's best defensive teams throughout the season, but faded a bit down the stretch. When I featured the Thunder's defense at the All-Star break, the team ranked third in the league in Defensive Rating. Oklahoma City ultimately slipped to eighth, getting torched by Golden State and Portland in the season's final week.
WHEN OKLAHOMA CITY HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.8 possessions per 48 minutes (11th NBA)
Oklahoma City Offensive Rating: 110.2 points per 100 possessions (12th NBA)
Lakers Defensive Rating: 105.3 points per 100 possessions (6th NBA)
The good news for the Thunder is that the drop-off on defense was accompanied by growth on offense. Check out Oklahoma City's season-to-date ratings by game:
While offense tends to get better over the course of the season no matter what, the Thunder's development into a more offensive-minded team was real. Below average for most of the campaign, Oklahoma City finished the year 12th in Offensive Rating. In Kevin Durant, the Thunder boasts the league's leading scorer. Durant's game is predicated on efficiency as much as volume, making him one of the NBA's most valuable players.
Of Durant's many skills, the one that earned the most attention in the second half of the season was his precocious ability to get to the free throw line. 16.0 percent of Durant's possessions ended in trips to the charity stripe, putting him slightly ahead of LeBron James and behind only Corey Maggette and Chris Bosh among go-to players. Phil Jackson started working the referees ahead of time, pointing to the favorable calls opponents believe Durant receives. Ron Artest gets the defensive assignment, and Durant has called the Lakers' forward one of the two toughest defenders he's faced in the NBA. Artest's ultra-physical style is uncomfortable for Durant, who was held to an average of 6.0 free throw attempts in the four meetings and committed nearly five turnovers a night.
The more favorable matchup for the Thunder is at point guard, where the intersection of Russell Westbrook's quickness and Fisher's age means Westbrook should be able to live in the paint. Westbrook made 54.3 percent of his two-point attempts against the Lakers, as compared to 43.8 percent throughout the season. The issue is that Westbrook has been ineffective lately, putting up a .463 True Shooting Percentage in the month of April. He's been able to overcome middling efficiency thanks to his ability to create for himself and others as well as his defense, but that style left him little margin for error.
It's worth keeping an eye on Oklahoma City's floor spacing in this series. The Thunder is even worse from three-point range than the Lakers, and extended minutes for Sefolosha means less of rookie James Harden, the team's leader in three-point percentage. When Durant has the basketball and the starting lineup is on the floor, only Jeff Green (33.3 percent) is any kind of threat from beyond the arc, which will allow the Lakers to offer help to Artest.
The Lakers are the playoffs' biggest mystery. There were reasons to believe that L.A. would be weakened by Fisher's aging and replacing Ariza with Artest, but who imagined the Lakers limping into the postseason with seven losses in their last 11 games? At this point, I'm not sure anything would surprise when it comes to the Lakers. In their defense, however, injuries have been a factor down the stretch. The Lakers may be able to replace Andrew Bynum in the starting lineup with Lamar Odom, but the issue is who backs up Odom and Pau Gasol in those scenarios. Getting Bynum back even for 10-15 minutes a night represents a massive upgrade on DJ Mbenga and should help the Lakers.
Oklahoma City is good enough, and well-coached enough, to have a legitimate chance at pulling off the first-round upset. The Thunder should be especially tough at the Ford Center, where fans will be getting their first taste of playoff basketball. The most likely scenario I envision is the Lakers winning the first two games, Oklahoma City evening up the series at home and the Lakers finally seizing control to send the Thunder packing.
Lakers in 6
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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