6:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Lakers -5.5, Over/Under: 217.5
As one team will sit back satisfied in clinching the top seed in the West, the other finds themselves embroiled in a dogfight for positioning in the standings, as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers face off from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. When projecting the Playoff Field in the Western Conference, few people would have pegged the Thunder (41-25, 6th in Western Conference) as one of it’s number, let alone in the thick of things for what would have been home court advantage before the Covid-19 Pandemic changed everything for the Association. Most would have projected them as one of many sides simply fighting to sneak into the postseason for the fifth year in a row, but for all intents and purposes Oklahoma City has been a team that has defied said expectations. Following the departure of not one, but two All-Stars in the form of former MVP, Russell Westbrook, and Paul George, this was a side that looked like they were on the fast track towards rebuilding, and while that fate may still be looming, Billy Donovan’s charges have at the very least managed to delay that future for a little longer. After getting off to a disappointing 8-12 start to the campaign, OKC rounded into shape in going 25-10 heading into the All-Star Break, before carrying that momentum afterwards to win seven out of nine contests before the suspended play for the following four months.
Anytime a team jettisons two stars for a boatload of draft picks, it’s perceived as one side throwing up the white flag for the short term with the focus turning towards developing their young talent and scouting the collegiate ranks. Well, while we’re sure that the front office is doing both of those things, there has been nothing remotely close to a white flag lifted in Oklahoma City who has also benefitted from the actual players that they received in the Westbrook/George Trades. First and foremost has been veteran Point Guard, Chris Paul (17.8 PTS, 49.1% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 4.9 REB, 6.8 AST, 1.5 STL, 21.7 PER), who despite being branded by many to be in decline, has proven the naysayers wrong and helped facilitate the development and acceleration of the young supporting cast around him. That bit shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, for there really hasn’t been a better pure floor general in the NBA over the last decade and some change, with the 34-Year Old really hitting it off with the aforementioned Donovan, a former Point Guard himself, in morphing this team into an efficient, pesky group that just seems to hang around no matter how difficult the challenge. Imported from the Clippers, young Guard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (19.4 PTS, 47.3% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.9 PER), and veteran sharpshooter, Danilo Gallinari (19.2 PTS, 44.0% FG, 40.9% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 2.0 AST, 19.5 PER), have contributed greatly, with the former developing at an exponential rate alongside Paul, while the latter has greatly benefitted from his first prolonged stretch of good health in years. Furthermore, Backup Point Guard, Dennis Schroder (18.9 PTS, 46.9% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 4.0 AST, 16.8 PER), has also improved learning at the side of the future Hall of Famer, allowing the Thunder to really create havoc on the perimeter in smaller lineups. It’s become clear that Paul’s intelligence has proven infectious for this is a team that simply doesn’t beat itself; Oklahoma City ranks Ninth Overall in both Offensive (53.5%) and Defensive (51.9%) Effective Field Goal Percentage, while ranking Tenth in Turnover Percentage (12.4%) when in possession, and Second and Third Overall in Free-Throw/Field Goal Attempt Ratio offensively (23.3%) and defensively (16.7%), providing further proof that the ten-time All-Star’s fingerprints are all over the unit.
As we stated earlier, the Thunder absolutely find themselves in a battle in the middle of the Playoff Field out West, where only a single game separates Seeds Four through Six, which they currently occupy. If the Playoffs began today, then Oklahoma would be matching up with the Denver Nuggets, though it could just as easily be the Houston Rockets or Utah Jazz ahead of them, which no doubt has Donovan & Co thinking about potential matchups and which would be the most advantageous. In the meantime, his troops have split their first two games of the restart, embarrassing the aforementioned Jazz in a 110-94 thumping, before running out of gas in a 113-121 loss to the Nuggets in Overtime on Monday Night. In a tightly contested affair, the Thunder struggled offensively, shooting just 42.5% from the field, and only dishing out five more Assists (20) than Turnovers (15), largely staying within distance on the strength of their three-point shooting; Oklahoma City nailed 15-of-36 Attempts (41.7%), outscoring Denver by Twenty-Four Points in that regard. Three different players scored at least Twenty Points for Donovan’s side, with Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul posting Twenty-Four and Twenty-Three respectively, though they also racked nearly as many Turnovers (8) as Assists (10). In comparison, their opponent planted a flag at the Free-Throw Line, where they attempted a whopping THIRTY-NINE Free-Throws, knocking down a staggering thirty-one, with a the duo of Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter combining for Sixty-Seven Points, which should provide some food for thought for Donovan in what could very well be a prelude to the Playoffs.
Meanwhile, at this point it remains to be seen just how engaged the Lakers (51-15, 1st in Western Conference) will be over these final five games of the restart, having clinched the No. One Seed out West with Monday’s 116-108 victory over the Utah Jazz. Despite being a foregone conclusion that they would in fact lock up the top seed in the standings, particularly when you consider they returned from the shutdown armed with a six-game lead and only eight games left to play, this is still a significant achievement for a franchise for despite all of their historical success, hasn’t enjoyed a One Seed since 2010, which was coincidentally the last time that they hoisted a Larry O’Brien Trophy. Though the contest was certainly nip-and-tuck throughout the First Half, the Lakers exploded following intermission on the strength of a 19-5 run that allowed them to build a 14-point lead in the Fourth Quarter. After a lackluster performance against the defending champion Raptors over the weekend, Los Angeles bounced back in style, shooting 50.0% from the field, and taking much better care of the basketball than they had in the first two outings of the restart, assisting on Twenty-Three of their Forty-One Field Goals, while committing just Fourteen Turnovers. Defensively, they forced Utah into Twenty-One Turnovers, a dozen of which were steals, as their length and size really proved troublesome for the Jazz. Of course, the most notable performance of the night belonged to Anthony Davis (26.8 PTS, 50.7% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 9.4 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.5 STL, 2.4 BLK, 28.2 PER), who has continued to dominate since the return to action, posting a game-high Forty-Two Points on 13-of-28 shooting from the field (46.4%, including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc (50.0%), and 12-of-15 from the Free-Throw Line (80.0%), along with Twelve Rebounds, Four Assists, Three Steals, and a Block.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the Lakers’ dogged pursuit of Davis, which began midway through the 2018-2019 campaign, has paid of handsomely, with the seven-time All-Star Forward proving to be a dominant presence in the Paint and beyond for a franchise that has long been associated with some of the greatest big men in the history of the league. The 27-Year Old has been the foundation of Frank Vogel’s defensive tactics, helping turn one of the NBA’s worst defensive outfits into one of it’s best; Los Angeles has allowed the second-fewest points in the league (106.8), while ranking in the Top-10 in a slew of other categories including Field Goal Percentage (44.4%), Two-Point Percentage (50.5%), and Three-Point Percentage (34.4%), along with Assists permitted (23.2), Rebounds (45.9), Steals (8.6), Blocks (6.8), and Turnovers forced (15.9). One of the few teams that still utilizes lineups featuring two bigs, Davis’ versatility has made this possible, with his athleticism and length allowing him to step out the perimeter and close on shooters and disrupt passing lanes. Along with veteran big men, Dwight Howard (7.5 PTS, 73.8% FG, 7.2 REB, 0.7 AST, 1.2 BLK, 18.6 PER) and JaVale McGee (6.6 PTS, 63.6% FG, 5.7 REB, 1.5 BLK, 19.6 PER), this is a defense that has proven extremely difficult to penetrate against and earn clear looks, let alone second-chance opportunities. And with all that said, his unique skillset on the offensive end of the court, has made the former all the more possible. Most teams refrain from playing two bigs at the same time primarily due to spacing issues; in essence, they clog the Paint of any opportunity of penetration from their teammates. This isn’t the case with Davis, who has proven equally adept at facing up defenders away from the rim, taking them off the dribble, or as he proved against Rudy Gobert of the Jazz Monday Night, bombing away from beyond the arc. Needless to say, this guy is SPECIAL, and if it isn’t evident as to why the Lakers dismantled their entire roster to acquire his services, then you may need to have your head checked.
Of course, his production is equally important to that of fellow All-Star, LeBron James (25.4 PTS, 49.6% FG, 34.9% 3FG, 8.0 REB, 10.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 25.6 PER), who even at the age of 35-Year Old remains fully capable of taking over a game when necessary. In his eighteenth season in the NBA, the four-time MVP has essentially assumed the role of Point Guard with the Lakers, a role that has only become more significant since the losses of both Avery Bradley (8.6 PTS, 44.4% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 8.9 PER) and Rajon Rondo (7.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 32.8% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 5.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.4 PER), the former who opted to sit out of the restart due to Covid-19 concerns, and the latter who tore a ligament in his thumb in practice three weeks ago. After four months of rest, the idea of James effectively carrying that responsibility/burden moving forward through the Playoffs is certainly a plausible one (he’s leading the league in assists after all), though many will point out that it’s far from ideal to place even more weight onto his shoulders at this stage of his career. With that said, the bigger issue is replacing these guys off the ball on both ends of the court, which Vogel believes has been with the additions of veterans Dion Waiters (11.5 PTS, 42.9% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 14.0 PER), Markieff Morris, and JR Smith, who were all added to the roster following the Trade Deadline. Though none of them are Point Guards, they each provide a physical presence defensively, while also proving capable of knocking down open jumpers, which are always prevalent when playing alongside James and Davis. Look for Vogel to spend these last five games getting these new faces more acclimated within the rotation, for they will likely be counted on come the Playoffs.