Lakers vs. Thunder preview: Los Angeles brings its baggage to Oklahoma City

Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE

Oklahoma City has been storming past its opponents of late, and Friday they'll meet the up-and-down Lakers for the first time since the Western Conference Semifinals last season.

Much has changed since the Oklahoma City Thunder dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs last spring.

Oklahoma City dealt Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to the Houston Rockets and have been working Kevin Martin into Harden's pseudo-role off the bench. Shot-blocking force Serge Ibaka has also been getting more chances to spread his offensive wings, and, all told, the Thunder have really been just fine. At 15-4 overall and winners of six straight, Oklahoma City has been rolling opponents in that stretch by an average score of 112.2 - 93.3. Their lowest scoring output came during a 100-79 romp over the New Orleans Hornets -- not yet Pelicans -- last Saturday.

The Lakers, coming into this contest at 9-10 overall, have hardly gone a day without making headlines in some form or another. Whether it be Dwight Howard's putrid free-throw shooting (he's currently making 46.9 percent of his freebies) and the subsequent costliness of said shooting late in games with opponents employing the "hack-a-Howard" technique to success, forward Pau Gasol (who will not play Friday due to knee tendinitis) and his passivity taking its annual turn in the spotlight or anything else, there's seemingly always cause for drama in Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant, who surpassed 30,000 career points on Wednesday against the Hornets, has been the voice of frustration, providing plenty of soundbites early in the season about his team's constant state of flux and reshuffling.

Of course, with Steve Nash still sidelined, all final words on the Lakers can't be written quite yet, but a trip to Oklahoma City on Friday figures to still be a stiff test. Kevin Durant is a problem for everyone, but Russell Westbrook's blinding speed and unharnessable athleticism against Los Angeles' point guards (which basically means Chris Duhon right now) looks to be the most glaring mismatch in this contest. Howard and Ibaka attempting to go block-for-block with one another could make for an entertaining sidebar, but if it's close down the stretch, will Howard again prove to be a liability at the line?

If the Lakers are one thing right now, they are a work in progress. That won't change until Nash returns to the floor, where another round of gelling can begin. After their massive move before the season began, Oklahoma City appears to be adjusting rather nicely. If we're talking about who looks primed to conquer right now, there really isn't much of an argument that can be made.

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