Lakers – Thunder Preview

59189950Heading into Friday night’s contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder, this season’s fourth and final regular season matchup, the Lakers are looking for their 13th consecutive victory against the franchise, a streak dating back to the Seattle Supersonic days.

This season, two of those victories came in November and one in December, and the Thunder are a different team since then.

They went just 7-8 in November, but are an impressive 34-19 since then, including a 19-6 mark since Jan. 29th (.760) thanks in large part to elite athleticism and length on defense and the scoring ability of Kevin Durant.

Phil Jackson described the Thunder’s D, which allows the fourth-worst field goal percentage (44.2 percent) in the NBA, after Thursday’s practice.

“They are awfully active and athletic, and their defense is predicated a lot on steals, turnovers, tough shots, blocks and they run out very well from it,” he said. “In fact, most of our practice today was concerned with our spacing, taking care of the basketball, getting the kind of shots we want to get.”

Jackson detailed that the Lakers aren’t really concerned with anything but controlling the perimeter at both ends of the court, which is easier to do with the kind of effort Ron Artest has been putting forth on defense. The first-year Laker dominated the second half of L.A.’s Wednesday evening win in San Antonio (five steals) and has now turned his gaze towards Durant and his 29.7 points per game (second to LeBron James).

Though Artest generally doesn’t like to discuss individual matchups on defense, feeling like it gives the opponent too much credit, other have spoken for him lately.

“He’s the one that created the turnovers,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “He did a heck of a job for them.”

Artest did offer an explanation for his swipes, at least: “Guys kept dribbling the ball around me but I think to their credit, they‘ve been thinking for the past three year I haven‘t been the same defender. But since I‘ve gotten lighter, I think guys are now going to be reminded now to dribble so much around me.”

A recent Sports Illustrated Player’s Poll (taken for the March 22 issue from a survey of 173 NBA players) revealed some promising results for Artest’s D. The question was: “Who is the toughest defender in the NBA?” Artest grabbed 42 percent of the vote, a big majority, while Kobe Bryant came in second at 13 percent and Dwight Howard third at 12 percent.

Now for a bit more on the guy Artest will be trying to contain on Friday…

58816653Kevin Durant Can Score
In his third NBA season, Durant has put up 2,077 points through the Thunder’s first 70 games, which already puts him third in franchise history. He got to the 2,000 point threshold in just his 68th game of the season to join LeBron James as one of two NBA players to accomplish that feat at age 21 or younger. For such a high volume shooter, Durant’s percentages are impressive. He’s shooting 47.7 percent from the field, 35.7 percent from 3-point range and 89.4 percent from the line, where he’s hit 626-of-700 free throws (by comparison, Kobe Bryant has taken only 491 FT’s, making 403 for an 82.1 percent success rate). Durant also leads the NBA in most 30+ point games this season (39), and OKC is 27-12 when he goes for more than 30.

In fairness, Kobe wouldn’t have a problem averaging 30 if he needed to, but L.A. has many more alternative scoring options than do the Thunder, though Oklahoma City does have one of the better perimeter defenders in the league in the underrated Thabo Sefolosha.

The Lakers are also well aware of OKC’s second-leading scorer, Russell Westbrook (16.2 ppg) particularly in screen-roll situations, and Jeff Green’s capability as more of a stretch four player (15.0 ppg, 34% 3-pointers), not to mention the scoring and playmaking ability of rookie James Harden off the bench.

Turn your channel to KCAL at 5 p.m. or your radio dial to 710 ESPN radio to catch all the action, and as always, you can follow me on Twitter (@LakersReporter) for live updates during the game.