Lakers vs. Thunder preview: Has L.A. got its groove back?

USA TODAY Sports

A win in Oklahoma City would move a resurgent Lakers team over .500 for only the second time all season.

Sixty games into one of the longest and most dramatic regular seasons in recent NBA memory, the Lakers are finally back to where they started at .500. After bottoming out with a 17-25 record, L.A. has won 13 of their last 18 to get themselves within two games of the final playoff spot out West. However, sneaking into the playoff race won't mean much if they can't go toe-to-toe with Western Conference powers like the Oklahoma City Thunder.

For the Lakers, every game is a must-win at this point, even a nationally televised showdown in Oklahoma City, one of the most difficult places in the NBA to win. The Thunder are 26-4 on their home floor, but L.A. has some reason for optimism, coming off their 105-96 victory in Staples Center in late January. In that game, 21 points and 14 assists for Kobe Bryant in his "Point Kobe" role was enough to carry to them to the victory. He'll try to repeat that feat on Tuesday, in a 9:30 p.m. ET game that will be broadcast on TNT.

Kobe returned to his more natural role as a scorer in the Lakers' dramatic last-second victory over the Hawks on Sunday night, pouring in 34 points and four assists on 13-27 shooting. At the age of 34 and in his 17th season in the NBA, he's somehow managed to find a second wind, averaging 27 points, five rebounds and five assists while shooting 47 percent from the floor, the highest field goal percentage of his career. With Pau Gasol out and Steve Nash and Dwight Howard playing more complementary roles, slowing down the Lakers starts with stopping Kobe.

But as great as Kobe is playing, he'll take a back-seat to Kevin Durant on Tuesday. Durant's season for the ages continued in the Thunder's win over the Clippers on Sunday, when he scored 35 points with nine rebounds and four assists to carry Oklahoma City to a huge win in the Staples Center. And while the Thunder can throw Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, new acquisition Ronnie Brewer and even Russell Westbrook on Kobe, the Lakers don't really have a natural match-up for Durant. Either Metta World Peace or Earl Clark will have to figure out some way to slow down the Thunder star or just hope that he misses.

Derek Fisher's Return

Derek Fisher, who won five NBA titles with the Lakers, adds a bit of intrigue to Tuesday's game as well. After a brief stint with the Mavericks, Fisher sat by the phone most of the year waiting for a phone call from an elite team. The Thunder, perhaps under the impression that there was a tenure system in the NBA, were kind enough to give him a roster spot after they dealt Eric Maynor. While he's being counted on to provide "veteran leadership," he's so far gone as a useful NBA player that any amount of floor time he gets could give L.A. a huge edge. That's what happened the last time he got playing time, a five-minute stretch in Denver where the Nuggets mercilessly ran him off the court.

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