The Thunder, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, first announced themselves as future championship contenders by testing the then-top-seeded Lakers in a thrilling six-game series in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Two years later, the Thunder must get past an enigmatic but experienced and highly talented Lakers team in the throes of transition if Oklahoma City is to live up to its preseason billing as the Western Conference favorite to make the Finals.
By Monday night's series opener, it will have been nine days since the Thunder finished a first-round sweep of the defending champion Mavericks -- and less than 48 hours since the Lakers endured a seven-game dogfight against the speedy, undersized Nuggets in their first-round matchup. The disparity might initially help the Lakers as they try to steal home-court advantage by riding the momentum and relief of their dramatic win over Denver against a Thunder squad that will have to knock off some rust to regain its postseason rhythm and intensity. But with the first four games of this series taking place over a six-day period, the advantage increasingly swings to Oklahoma City, which usually has four players 23 years or younger on the floor in crunch time, and runs an offense that ranked sixth in pace and second in points per possession during the regular season. The Thunder will be increasing the tempo against the more-veteran Lakers, who were run ragged by the Nuggets and ceded more fast-break points than every team except the Kings, Bobcats and Timberwolves.
Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol vs. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. After the Lakers' Game 7 win Saturday night, coach Mike Brown correctly noted that when Bynum and Gasol are motivated and on their respective games, their length and talent give L.A. a unique edge and character. Their impact (both positive and negative) was more pronounced against Denver than it will be versus Oklahoma City, which has a center in Perkins who specializes in neutralizing opposing behemoths like Bynum, and a power forward in Ibaka who led the NBA in blocks this season. (The Thunder are hoping to have Perkins available for Game 1 despite a hip injury.) And Nick Collison provides frontcourt depth that L.A. can't match even with the emergence of Jordan Hill as a capable reserve in the Denver series.
If the Lakers are going to pull off the upset, Bynum and Gasol will have to own the boards, reducing the Thunder to a one-and-done jump-shooting team in the half-court to offset Oklahoma City's advantage in transition -- the difference was 64-27 in fast-break points during their three regular-season meetings. By contrast, if Oklahoma City's big men can hold their own or, as was the case in the second meeting between the teams this season, win their battle with Bynum and Gasol, the Lakers will be rapidly eliminated.
Thunder: Derek Fisher. After winning five rings alongside Kobe Bryant with the Lakers, Fisher knows L.A.'s tendencies and personnel well. That inside knowledge combined with his locker-room leadership and whopping 209 games of playoff experience compelled the Thunder to sign him in March after the Lakers traded him to Houston and the Rockets graciously acceded to his request to be waived so he could join a contender. At 37, his on-court skills have declined significantly in his 17th season and the Lakers were smart to upgrade at the point by acquiring Ramon Sessions at the trading deadline. But Fisher rewarded the faith and playing time given him by Thunder coach Scott Brooks by having a marvelous first-round series against Dallas. He was especially effective in a three-guard lineup with Westbrook and James Harden, a configuration similar to the small-ball that Denver effectively deployed against the Lakers. With his history of taking and making big shots in the postseason and his accuracy from the free-throw line, don't be surprised if he finds himself with the ball in his hands with a game on the line this series.
Lakers: Metta World Peace. The veteran small forward's value was dramatically demonstrated by his absence in the first six games of the Denver series, when the Nuggets ignored his replacements, Matt Barnes and Devin Ebanks, to double-team the Lakers' stars on defense and played a small lineup with impunity on offense. When he returned for the series finale after serving his seven-game suspension for elbowing Harden, World Peace played with confidence on offense and with his typically effective gristle on defense. For the Lakers to topple Oklahoma City, he will have to ignore the venomous Thunder crowd and media circus surrounding the fallout from last month's incident, and continue to hit open jumpers and grind on defense against Durant and Harden.
Both Teams: The officiating. When and why the refs blow their whistles could have an enormous impact on this series. Durant (second), Bryant (third), Harden (ninth) and Westbrook (10th) ranked in the top 10 in free throws made per game this season and are obviously masters at drawing the foul. Perkins, Collison and Ibaka are prone to foul trouble, especially against talented big men like Bynum and Gasol. And after his recent history with Harden, World Peace will be watched like a hawk and likely given little leeway in the way he bodies up Thunder opponents.
The addition of Sessions as a penetrator and pick-and-roll initiator in the offense provided the Lakers with yet another weapon to go with superstar Bryant and the best twin towers in the NBA. But this has been a tenaciously star-crossed season for L.A., beginning with the departure of coach Phil Jackson, the aborted trade of Lamar Odom and Gasol followed by the dime-on-the-dollar dealing of Odom, and straight on through to the curiously inconsistent and uninspired play of Bynum and Gasol against the Nuggets. The Lakers survived in part because Denver had no crunch-time closer. By contrast, the Thunder have three in Durant, Westbrook and Harden.
Oklahoma City has been on a mission only partially marred by an inconsistent April that cost it the No. 1 seed in the West to the Spurs. The Thunder convincingly beat the Lakers twice in the regular season and lost in overtime in late April only because Westbrook shot 3-for-22 and Harden was concussed by World Peace in the second quarter and didn't return. They hold home-court advantage against a Lakers team that has gone 16-20 on the road in the regular season and playoffs. If the Lakers can capitalize on Thunder rust in Game 1, it could be a great, long series. Otherwise, Thunder in five.