The additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard should provide enough to help… ( Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
With the Lakers' roster changes pretty much finalized, it's safe now to envision how the team will fare heading into the 2012-13 season. Sure, the Lakers will have to narrow their 14-man roster during training camp, and no one knows what deals leading into the trade deadline could change the NBA landscape. But in the spirit of seeing how things have evolved for the Lakers since the 2012 NBA playoffs ended, this is one in a series breaking down potentially troublesome opponents.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
Lakers' record versus Thunder last year: 1-2 in regular season; lost 4-1 in Western Conference semifinals
How Thunder fared last season: Compiled a 47-19 regular-season record (second in Western Conference), lost 4-1 to the Miami Heat in NBA Finals
Why the Lakers are a threat to the Thunder: The Lakers maintain they easily could have led in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals had they not blown fourth-quarter leads in Games 2 and 4. The claim seems overstated, given the Thunder's superior speed and talent. Yet it's hard to ignore what contributed to the fourth-quarter lapses. The Lakers coughed up a seven-point lead in Game 2, after Kobe Bryant committed two turnovers and Steve Blake missed a potential game-winning three-pointer. The Lakers unraveled in Game 4 for other reasons. Bryant went one for 10 from the field. The Thunder fronted Andrew Bynum in the post. Pau Gasol made a costly turnover instead of shooting a wide-open jumper that could have won the game.
With Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joining the Lakers' starting lineup, it's unlikely such mistakes would happen again. Bryant won't work so much in isolation because Nash's playmaking will free him to move more off the ball. Even if Kendrick Perkins remains a physical presence, Howard is better equipped than Bynum to navigate fronting in the post. Gasol will likely feel more involved in the offense because the Princeton system will ensure more post-up plays and open shots off of cuts. The Lakers already have better outside shooters this year in Nash (career 42.8% three-point shooter) and Jodie Meeks (career 37% three-point shooter).
The Lakers are also better equipped to handle Oklahoma City's speed. Nash doesn't have a shot at stopping Russell Westbrook. Metta World Peace may have mixed success containing Kevin Durant. Gasol may not have enough physical strength to guard Serge Ibaka. But Howard's defensive presence inside gives the Lakers a huge insurance policy to offset such issues. Besides, when the Thunder resorts to small lineups, Howard appears more suited than Bynum would be in staying on the floor.
Why the Thunder is still a threat to the Lakers: The Lakers haven't fully solved their age and speed issues. Aside from Howard, the Lakers' starting five is an old lineup that would struggle running in a track meet against the Thunder. As talented as they are, the Lakers found out the hard way last season that no amount of methodical and patient ball movement can overcome Oklahoma City's putting together a two-minute offensive outburst. And there are uncertainties: Can the Lakers' veteran team stay healthy? Will the players have ironed out their offensive roles, particularly in the fourth quarter? The Thunder might simply wear the Lakers down during a series.
Verdict: The Lakers will win in seven games. It will be a tough and entertaining series. But any Lakers health and chemistry issues will be worked out during the regular season. Once the playoffs start, everything will run smoothly. As much as the Lakers will need oxygen masks to keep up with the Thunder, the Lakers crisper offense and Howard's defensive presence will help them offset such issues.
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