#8 Oklahoma City Thunder
(50-32, 4th place in Northwest Division)
#1 Los Angeles Lakers
(57-25, 1st place in Pacific Division)
Oklahoma City Thunder
How They Got Here: The Thunder proved to be a team full of spunk and youthful exuberance this year, and that’s how they survived in the rough and tumble Western Conference. Don’t confuse this team for an average #8 seed that is just going to lie down and die for a #1. Oklahoma City believes that it is good enough to compete with anyone in the NBA, and with the leading scorer in the NBA in tote, there’s a good reason to believe that.
Player To Watch: When you can say that you’re better at something than F LeBron James, you’re doing something special. F Kevin Durant outdueled James for the scoring title in the NBA this year, as the University of Texas superstar was the only player in the league to score more than 30 points per game in 2009-10. He can take over a game at the blink of an eye offensively, and quite frequently carries the team to the finish line in close efforts.
X-Factor: G Eric Maynor might not be the most valuable player on this Oklahoma City team, but he is certainly a dangerous man that can’t be overlooked. The first round draft pick out of Virginia Commonwealth only averaged 4.5 points per game this year, but he has three point shooting ability (36.2% this year) and dished out 3.4 assists per game. He’s a lethal assassin that will be brought off of the bench for a spark for the Thunder.
Key To Victory: The Thunder need to take a page out of the 1969 New York Mets: You gotta beeeelieve! Oklahoma City has a poor history against the Lakers, having only beaten them once since leaving Seattle, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t pull this trick off. But if the Lakers impose their will and belief goes out the door, the Thunder are finished.
Los Angeles Lakers
How They Got Here: Oklahoma City doesn’t feel like an average #8 seed, but based on the fact that the Lakers didn’t finish in the Top 5 in the NBA in either scoring or defense, they don’t exactly feel like a #1 either. Even though Los Angeles has one of the most talented teams in the NBA, it has fought injuries all season long. Still, finishing with 57 wins is a very impressive feat.
Player To Watch: If it’s playoff time, it’s Kobe Time. G Kobe Bryant has accolades that most players would die to have. Not only does he have nearly a fist full of rings, but he’s still only 32 years old and is in the prime of his career. He has scored over 25,000 points in his career, and he averaged 27.0 this season. He’s also a great rebounder at 5.4 per game and a solid assist man at 5.0 per game (which led the team).
X-Factor: G Ron Artest has been the forgotten man on this Lakers squad. Picked up for his defensive awareness, Artest has also chipped in a bit offensively, scoring 11.0 points per game. That’s a far cry from his 17.1 points per game last season in Houston, which is why he has probably flown under the radar, but Artest’s length and annoyance on the defensive end of the court could take Durant out of the game.
Key To Victory: The trick for the Lakers isn’t stopping Durant. Odds have it, OKC’s leading scorer will most likely get his points one way or the other. The trick is not letting guys like G James Harden and F Jeff Green beat them. The Thunder simply aren’t going to be able to win this series with one man alone, so that should be the focus of LA.
The Final Word: The Thunder have been a nice little story this year, but they really shouldn’t be able to pull this off unless they really catch the Lakers napping. Expect to see Oklahoma City’s youngsters pick up a ton of valuable experience for future years, but they’ll bow out of the playoffs fairly quickly.
Lakers in 5