Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook drives for a reverse… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
Some things to watch when the Lakers host the Thunder on Sunday (12:30 p.m.) at Staples Center.
1. The Lakers need to outwork Oklahoma City. The Lakers know they're the slower team. They know they have to control tempo in order to win. They know they have to limit turnovers so Oklahoma City doesn't cash in on transition. But no matter how hard the Lakers try to hold down that strategy, it lasts only for so long. The floodgates opened in the Lakers' two losses this year when the Thunder came back with a strong second-half run.
No matter what the Lakers do, it might just be inevitable that OKC will eventually outrun them. But the Lakers can mitigate at least some of that by grinding it out. Owning the glass. Diving for loose balls. Throwing crisp passes. Yeah, it doesn't sound exciting. But the Lakers lacked those qualities in two losses to San Antonio, and they won't have a remote chance at beating the Thunder if they don't change course.
2. How will Kobe Bryant respond against Oklahoma City? Bryant may insist he doesn't care about capturing his third scoring title. But that doesn't mean Bryant's not eager to put on a show against the Thunder. He's mostly consumed with championships. But both James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha have made him work hard enough for his shots that he's averaged only 23.5 points on 28.6% shooting. Bryant's jawed with them. He's seemed consumed with showing them up. And it takes away from the game plan. Best not for Bryant to fall into the same trap.
3. Will Ramon Sessions bounce back from his recent struggles? The Lakers acquired him partly so the Lakers would be more equipped to handle speedy backcourts. They may have upgraded significantly on offense. But Sessions mostly has shown he has a long way to go in mitigating the damage top point guards provide.
And so when the Lakers match up with the Thunder, who know if Sessions' presence will be a net positive. The Thunder struggle defending the pick-and-roll, which could free up Sessions to drive to the basket. But Russell Westbrook made him a non-factor by dropping 37 points the last go-around. The Lakers strategized by playing underneath screens to force him into jumpers, but Westbrook found the hot hand. If Sessions and his front line can't consistently help, it might be a good idea to match Bryant, Matt Barnes or Metta World Peace at times on Westbrook.
4. Metta World Peace could have a big game. As ugly as the Lakers' double-digit loss Friday to San Antonio looked, the Lakers showed two good signs. Bryant doesn't look rusty and the small forward production still provided energy. With how fluid World Peace has looked in the last month, I wouldn't be surprised if he channels his new-found energy in throwing Kevin Durant off his game.
5. The Lakers need to temper Oklahoma City's bench. If the Lakers are going to have any chance beating OKC, they have to have someone beyond Barnes who can consistently score. That's because Harden, a lock for Sixth Man of the Year, has averaged 16.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Derek Fisher might face career-lows in points and shooting percentage in 17 games with the Thunder, but he proved last month he can lead a second-quarter charge against his former team.