Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant drives around James Harden… (Sue Ogrocki / Associated…)
The Lakers visit the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night. It's the first time the two will meet since the Thunder bounced the Lakers from the second round of the playoffs (4-1) back in May.
The Lakers have since revamped their roster, although the Thunder will likely see a pared-down version with Steve Nash (leg), Pau Gasol (knees) and Steve Blake (abdominal surgery) sidelined with injury. Oklahoma City has also made a serious change, trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and other considerations.
OKC (15-4) has been on a tear recently, winning six in a row and nine of the last 10. The Lakers have been up and down, splitting their last ten for a 9-10 overall record.
If the Lakers want any real chance of home-court advantage throughout the playoffs in the Western Conference, they'll need to dominate the head-to-head battles to make up ground.
Friday is a tremendous opportunity for the Lakers to take a major step forward, but it won't be easy.
The Lakers rely heavily on Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard for their offense, especially with Gasol out.
Oklahoma City added Kendrick Perkins via trade in February 2011, specifically to help defend centers such as Howard. If Perkins can make it a difficult night for Howard, the Lakers would lose their inside advantage.
If Howard can dominate Perkins, the Lakers have a real chance at victory.
Harden was a serious problem for the Lakers. Will Martin have a similar effect? This could be one of the most significant questions of the Lakers' postseason, assuming they get healthy and on track.
Devin Ebanks had one of the best games of his career against the Thunder in Oklahoma City last season. He didn't duplicate it in the playoffs and may not get much of a chance Friday ... but with a recent return to the rotation, this would be an ideal opportunity for the young forward to make a major impression with a strong defensive performance on Kevin Durant.
The Lakers aren't favored. They don't seem ready for this level of competition.
The prediction is the Thunder, but it would be quite a step forward for the Lakers to get this one on the road.
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Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.