The 2012 NBA Playoffs have been a dud so far. Everyone's injured, the games have been sloppy and uneven and even the first round matchups that went seven games were somehow underwhelming. Now we're two weeks in, and the Spurs/ Heat/Celtics all look like safe bets to roll with ease. So... yeah, we're a long ways off from the Basketball Nirvana that came with last year's playoffs.
But at the risk of jinxing things, LA-OKC could be our exception. You've got the dynasty of the past 5-10 years facing off against (maybe) the dynasty of the next 5-10, standing in their way like the Bad Boy Pistons against the early-90s Bulls. You've got Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, Metta World Peace against 20,000 angry Zombie Sonics fans, James Harden looking for revenge, the ongoing Andrew Bynum/Pau Gasol riddles and the Russell Westbrook's ongoing war against his own instincts. Plus, there's Scott Brooks and Mike Brown, two coaches helpless to stop things from descending into chaos at any point.
(Yes there's a decent chance this is all overblown and we're looking at four-or-five-game series win for OKC, but this is our last hope for the second round so just roll with it, okay?)
Here are a handful of things to watch.
WAR AND (WORLD) PEACE
People really need to stop acting like
Ron Artest Metta World Peace is the dirtiest, thuggishly-thugged-out thug the NBA's seen in years. There are a lot of storylines coming into this series, but all eyes are on Ron Ron coming into Game 1, so on that front let's be clear: everyone needs to relax. He's reckless and occasionally unreliable, sure. But he's not malicious, no matter how badly OKC fans want to turn him into some sort of comic book villain. Whether the Harden elbow was technically "intentional" or not, he A) definitely didn't mean to elbow him in the temple and B) wasn't trying to concuss anyone.
Anyway, if OKC fans' whiny melodrama wasn't enough make you root for World Peace by default, then his post-game interview this weekend probably put things over the top. Asked about the hostile OKC fans, he told Craig Sager, "Only thing that's important is playing basketball and repping my hood. You already know, Queensbridge projects, what's really good?"
Because Ron Ron's the greatest, that's why.
He's also playing his best basketball of the year right now. He had 15 points in Game 7 against Denver, but also shut down Danilo Gallinari and disrupted what had been a well-oiled Denver machine in Games 5 and 6. Now he'll be matched up with Durant and Harden for the next week or two, and with the whole world watching his every move (especially while he's in OKC), he'll have to come up huge. Given the way he's looked recently, underestimate World Peace at your own risk.
PAU: THE SKINNY, BEARDED STRAW STIRRING THE DRINK
Another lesson from Game 7: The Lakers are much better running their offense through Gasol, not Bynum. He's more skilled rolling off picks, and he's also a better passer from the post. So with Kobe and co. running Pau off picks and feeding him down low, L.A. looked like a brand new team, and Gasol answered with 23 and 17 in Game 7. This also has the added benefit of actively involving Gasol early and often, limiting the chances he floats around the court and looks invisible for 40 minutes. OKC could be weak on the inside thanks to Kendrick Perkins' injury, and exploiting it with a Gasol-centric attack could pay off huge. (Considering it took Brown and L.A. six games to figure this out against Denver, who knows if they'll keep it going on Monday Night).
THE BATTLE THAT COULD DECIDE EVERY GAME
... keep an eye on the Thunder's turnovers and free-throw attempts. They were the most turnover-prone team in the NBA this year, but the Lakers were easily the worst team when it came to forcing turnovers, so this is weakness-on-weakness. Whether OKC can get to the line is a matter of strength-on-strength. The Thunder were the best at generating (and making) free-throw attempts, while the Laker D was the best at preventing them.
Even if L.A. can force OKC into turnovers, it may not matter. The Thunder led the league in turnovers this year but still finished with the second-best offense in the league. A big part of that was getting to free-throw line, and that's where each game could be decided.
If KD, Westbrook, and Harden all get to the line early and often, that means Lakers are fighting an uphill battle. If they can force them into low-percentage jumpers late in the game, it's advantage L.A.
"So," you say, "you're telling us that refs could go a long way toward deciding each game of the NBA's highest profile playoff series?" YES. The spirit of Tim Donaghy lives! It's really a shame Phil Jackson's not around to work the refs in press conferences after every game.
RUSSELL WESTBROOK AGAINST HIMSELF (AND KOBE)
It's been L.A.'s weakness for years now, and the Nuggets series was just the latest example: the Lakers can't defend point guards. If Ty Lawson was good enough to tear them apart, then Westbrook could hit a whole 'nother level in Round Two.
There are two mitigating factors here.
- Westbrook. He is the NBA's Bodie Broadus, and while the Durant-Westbrook power struggles are overblown, his battles with himself are not. He can go for 35 and carry OKC all night, but he can just as easily shoot them out of a game by refusing to defer to guys like Durant and Harden when he's not feeling it. Given the matchups, he'll be a focal point all series long, and what that means for OKC could change on a nightly basis.
- Kobe. You may have noticed in Game 7 Saturday night, Lawson shredded L.A. throughout the first half and then sorta disappeared in the second. That was not a coincidence. When things get desperate for the Lakers against scoring point guards, Kobe can stop the bleeding. It may come at the expense of his offense, but still.
Which brings us to...
KOBE AND KD, AND THE BIG PICTURE
When Kobe plays great, the Lakers win. When Durant plays great, OKC wins. This is true for just about any superstar and his team; the twist is what "playing great" means for these two at this point in their career.
For Durant, the Thunder have enough weapons to stay above water when he struggles. Look no further than the first two games against Dallas in Round One. But they become effectively unstoppable when he's hitting on all cylinders. Exhibit A: Games 3 and 4 against Dallas. Two years ago, Oklahoma City could've beaten the Lakers in Round One, but even as they hung with the defending champs, Durant never really had a dominant game. He averaged 25-a-game, but shot 35 percent for the series. If OKC is going to win a title, he'll have to be much better in this series and beyond.
Kobe's a different story. Game 7 against the Nuggets was a masterpiece from him, but it had nothing to do with scoring. Instead, he helped get Pau involved, he got open looks for Steve Blake and World Peace and locked down Lawson all second half. The Lakers are at their best when he lets others get going early, plays great defense, and then hangs around to play the killer in the final minutes.
Bonus points if he high-fives Justin Timberlake in the process.
It's maybe a little counter-intuitive for Durant to play selfish, and it's definitely counter-intuitive for Kobe to do the opposite, but it's the key to both of their teams winning this series.
Big picture: If OKC and KD can dominate here, they'll be coming into the San Antonio series having beaten the past two NBA Champs, both of whom eliminated the past two years. If L.A. wins, they'll have knocked off the preseason West favorites and they'll be headed to San Antonio playing their best basketball of the year, with more confidence than ever. The Spurs have been dominating teams for the past eight weeks, but either of these teams has the talent to beat them if everything's clicking. So, when you factor in the momentum and confidence that comes with a convincing win for either team, here's to betting that whoever wins this series surprises everyone and rolls through the Spurs in the next round.
Until then, you have one team (and one superstar) learning how to dominate, and another team (and superstar) living on their legacy, trying to evolve and survive. You know it'll be close, the ball will be in Kobe and KD's hands in the final minutes, and... Maybe the playoffs aren't so bad after all?
(Let's just hope we didn't jinx it.)