Going into their playoff series with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, the Lakers and their fans were optimistic that they could beat the Thunder. The Lakers were playing their best basketball of the season heading into the playoffs, and although it took a brutal seven game series to discard the Denver Nuggets, expectations were still high that this team, like many of its predecessors, had enough to win the championship.
Unfortunately, that was not the case as Oklahoma City quickly exposed the Lakers’ flaws and handed them a 29 point loss in game 1 of the series.
Throughout the series, the Lakers struggled to score against the Thunder’s suffocating defense, and on the other side of the court, the Lakers’ defense played so dreadfully that they couldn’t stop a nose bleed. Russell Westbrook constantly made a fool of Ramon Sessions, proving that he was not the savior at point guard that all of Lakers Nation hoped he would be.
After a double-digit loss in game 5 of the series that eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs, rumors and questions began to swirl.
Would Gasol finally be traded? Did the Lakers’ loss signal the end of their dominance? The Lakers answered with a thunderous no!
First, they managed to light their own Fourth-Of-July fireworks by acquiring two-time MVP Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns, sending shockwaves through the NBA while Lakers fans everywhere rejoiced.
Next, they convinced Antawn Jamison, a 20 points per game career scorer, to sign for the veteran’s minimum instead of signing with his hometown team, the Charlotte Bobcats, for 5 or 6 million.
Just a month later, the Lakers made the biggest splash of the summer when they were able to snag Dwight Howard from the Magic in a deal that left everyone in Orlando scratching their heads.
And as if that wasn’t enough, just hours after the Dwight Howard trade was made official, the Lakers put the cherry on top of their off-season sundae when Jodie Meeks, a three-point sharpshooter, decided to take less money and sign with the Lakers in an effort to win a ring.
Going into this season, the Lakers have clearly put themselves back in the championship hunt. While nothing is a given in the NBA, the Lakers and Thunder should be able to lock up the top two seeds in the Western Conference, barring any unforeseen injuries to one of their key players. And just like they have done for the past few seasons, the Lakers and Thunder will once again square off. Only this time when they meet, it will be in an epic battle for hoops supremacy, with the winner earning the right to advance to the NBA finals.
During last season’s second-round playoff nightmare, the Thunder were able to score with an incredible amount of efficiency. Whether it was a quick pull-up jump-shot off of a screen-and-roll, or their ability to get out and run on the fast break, the Thunder made it look easy. And while the Lakers’ coaching staff tried to think of any plausible way to stop the Thunder, the simple fact of the matter was, there wasn’t one.
The Lakers just didn’t have the type of personnel grouping capable of defending the Thunder.
That is where having Dwight Howard over Andrew Bynum will make the biggest difference, on the defensive side of the court. Although Andrew Bynum was a strong interior defensive presence, he lacked the ability or desire to venture outside of the paint and contest any jump-shots when he was needed.
Dwight Howard meanwhile might be the best defensive pick-and-roll big man in the game. When Dwight Howard is called-upon to step out and defend a guard off of a screen, he does not hesitate. He possesses the foot speed and instincts necessary to defend a guard, and has the athleticism to recover in time when beat off the dribble by a quick guard, even an immensely talented guard such as Russell Westbrook.
The Lakers will also see an improvement defensively due to their newly acquired point guard, Steve Nash. If you are puzzled at all by this, you’re not alone. After all, when listening to someone describe Steve Nash defensively, common words you will hear are “slow,” “uninspiring,” and, “a liability.” Although Nash is a concern on defense, he still will help them on that side of the floor, it just won’t be with his defense.
Ever since Magic Johnson was forced to retire due to the HIV virus he had contracted, the Lakers have never had a true point guard capable of making his teammates better by passing the ball the way Nash is able to. Throughout the series with the Thunder last year, the Lakers had a difficult time putting the ball in the hoop.
Even when they were able to, the Thunder forced them to use an alarming amount of energy searching for an open shot. And on the seemingly common occasion where they weren’t able to get a good shot, the shot clock quickly became a factor and they were left no choice other than to get a shot up at the rim and elude a shot clock violation.
In most instances, a shot clock violation might have helped the Lakers more than a forced shot under duress, as most of these shots were missed and allowed the Thunder to do what they do best, get out in the open court and break. This is where Steve Nash is able to help the Lakers defensively, by limiting the amount of fast break opportunities for the Thunder.
Steve Nash possesses other-worldly passing skills arguably not seen since Magic Johnson. His innate abilities to dissect a defense and shred them with his pin-point passes as well as his lethal jump-shot is what has allowed him to continue his play at such a high level even as he enters the twilight of his career.
With his talented passing, the Lakers will be able to run their offense with much more efficiency and fluidity, which equates to less rushed shots and less opportunities for the Thunder to get the ball out on the break and push in transition. And with such a talented, high IQ point guard on board, the offense won’t be nearly as taxing on the rest of the Lakers and they should be able to make a much more seamless transition from offense to defense. Especially Kobe Bryant, who will be free to put in as much effort as possible to stopping James Harden, now that the bulk of the offensive load won’t be thrust upon his shoulders.
The Thunder also won’t be able to clamp down defensively like they did in last year’s series.
During the series last year, the Thunder devised a plan to force Kobe to use as much energy as possible offensively while still being able to hold him in check throughout the game. This strategy led to miscues down the stretch of tightly contested contests in games two and four that would prove to be their downfall.
The Thunder do posses elite defensive talent that at times can look like the epitome of a good defense. But when things aren’t going right, the Thunder do have a tendency to be quick on the trigger and lose their heads. In particular, known instigators Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins.
This is where having an older group of players helps, as savvy veterans such as Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol aren’t likely to take the bait and get into an altercation with their opposition. And odds are, when the Thunder have to guard four perennial all-stars at once, things will not be going their way, unless they find someway to double-team all of the Lakers’ stars at once.
One last key element as to why the Lakers will be able to dispatch the Thunder in this year’s playoffs is because of Metta World Peace (a.k.a. Ron Artest).
I know what you’re thinking. The Lakers had him last year and still couldn’t win. But, this isn’t the same Metta World Peace that we saw in last year’s playoffs. If you can recall, Metta World Peace was quite possibly playing his best basketball of his Lakers career during the tail end of last year’s regular season. He looked quick, aggressive and spry on defense, and finally looked comfortable offensively.
However, his regular season came to an abrupt stop when, after a steal leading to a thunderous left-handed sledge-hammer on Serge Ibaka, he threw a vicious elbow at the head of James Harden. He subsequently was ejected from the game and forced to serve an eight-game suspension, including the playoffs.
He eventually made it back in time to help the Lakers win game seven against the Nuggets and was able to play in all five games of the series against the Thunder. However, it was evident that he had not been able to maintain his physique that he had obtained towards the end of the season. Consequently, he never was really able to find his niche offensively or hound his man defensively the way Laker fans were accustomed to before the suspension.
Coming into training camp this season, Metta had dropped roughly 20 pounds from last year and seemingly entered camp with a new focus and dedication towards winning. While it is incredibly asinine to expect anyone to be able to shut down an elite player such as Kevin Durant, the NBA’s top defenders are capable of presenting enough trouble to at least slow him down.
And the Lakers just might have arguably the best defender in the league, other than LeBron James, at defending Durant.
While running through screens and chasing his man isn’t exactly his forte, Metta World Peace is excellent at playing on-ball, isolation defense; something Kevin Durant thrives on offensively. Kevin Durant has also spent many hours practicing and thus become very comfortable at getting the ball either on the high or low post and being able to operate.
However, he has never had to go up against World Peace, who is a brick wall when trying to get position or back down in the post. Metta will undoubtedly use his brute strength to root him out of the post area and force him to take a much longer, more strenuous shot. Believe me when I say this, it will be no picnic for Durant when trying to attribute anything offensively against the Lakers.
Although both teams still have their strengths and weaknesses, the Lakers did more to patch up their holes in their roster than anyone could have possibly expected them to. And while the Thunder didn’t make any noteworthy moves during the off-season, they still are a very dangerous team with an extremely bright future, an incredible amount of skill, and great leaders, capable of taking them deep into the playoffs and possibly even winning a championship.
However, the Lakers have proved once again that they don’t rebuild, they refuel. And with the refueling they did in this past off-season, they might have just put enough gas in the tank to bypass the Thunder in the battle of the NBA’s elite, and ignited the fire for yet another Laker Dynasty.