Oklahoma City’s loss in Portland on Monday night officially sealed their first-round fate, ensuring a playoff matchup with the Lakers starting this weekend at the Staples Center.
Bad news for Thunder fans, so sayeth the common wisdom. Basketball blogs have been saying for weeks that every other West team simply wanted to avoid that first-round date with LA.
So will this match-up produce the typical #1 seed vs. #8 yawn-fest?
Not so fast.
We’ll break this series down in greater detail from a few different perspectives later this week, but here’s a couple of quick LAL/OKC thoughts to chew on:
*First of all, it never makes sense to me that bloggers, fans and beat writers obsess over first-round matchups and seeding at the bottom end of the bracket. Of course, home-court advantage is critical, and so the focus on the jockeying at the top of the playoff bracket is worthy of attention. But why should the Thunder or their fans care whether they are the sixth, seventh, or eighth seed? Either way they will need to beat the best to be the best. Sure enough, year after year, players always say as much whenever they are interviewed on this question. Here’s a mind-numbing thought for Thunder fans: if you harbor even the faintest hopes of your team winning the title this season, perhaps you’d actually prefer to face the defending champs in the first round. With Andrew Bynum out indefinitely and the Lakers having lost six of their last 10, there’s no time like the present to attempt the impossible. And again, either way, they would need to eventually beat the best to be the best.
*This will be Kevin Durant’s first career trip to the postseason, no doubt the first of many. The Durantula’s breakout season will end with his first career scoring title, 30 points per game, and a likely top-3 finish in MVP voting. It might end with a thud, though, when Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant take turns pushing, shoving, and elbowing him all series. Durant Twittered earlier this year that Artest was the toughest defender he’s faced; can the slender forward withstand that punishment and still provide 35-40% of the Thunder’s offense in a six or seven-game series? I don’t think so. Phil Jackson and his staff have a week to prepare for this young man, and then a two-week series to analyze and make adjustments to his every movement. Think about this: Durant has probably never had an opponent prepare for him as much as the Lakers are about to.
*Thunder coach Scotty Brooks is a front-runner for Coach of the Year, and is widely respected for both the effort his team plays with and his X’s and O’s. Can he out-coach Jackson in a seven-game series? He would have to for OKC to have a chance to win.
*Derek Fisher can’t chase down lightning-quick point guards anymore. Russell Westbrook is a lightning quick point guard. However, Westbrook is turnover-prone and a bad shooter, and I think Fisher has enough veteran guile to avoid being badly outplayed in this matchup.
*Remember this name: Thabo Sefalosha. If you’re a casual NBA fan, he might be the best player you’ve never heard of. But you’re about to hear his name a lot, because his performance might be the difference in this series. Who is he? Sefalosha is OKC’s shooting guard, and arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA. He will be guarding Kobe for 40 minutes a night in this series, and his defense will be the difference between blowouts in the Lakers’ favor and close games that the Thunder has a chance of winning with a few breaks. No pressure, Thabo – you just have to slow down one of the two best players in the world. Can he force Kobe to take 30 shots to get his 30 points?
*An 8-seed has beaten a 1-seed only once in the history of the seven-game first-round format, and that was during the 2007 playoffs when the Warriors upset the Mavs. The lightning-quick Warriors played uber-small ball and gave Dallas fits at the offensive end, as Dirk and Dampier hopelessly lumbered after a barrage of three-point bombers. Perhaps the Lakers share a few parallels to those Mavs: an aging, star-filled team, prone to lapses in concentration, with a soft 7-foot scorer, facing a smallish, young upstart team that’s willing to go through a brick wall for its coach.
But there’s one huge difference – the Mavs’ best player (Dirk) was a defensive liability in that series, and Kobe is one of the best defenders in the game. I think that he and Artest will combine to make Durant’s first postseason into a trip that he will soon hope to forget.
Lakers in five, closing it out on their own home floor.