Lakers center Andrew Bynum tries to swat the ball away from Portland's… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Some things to keep an eye on when the Lakers (31-19) host the Oklahoma City Thunder (38-12) on Thursday at Staples Center.
1. How will Andrew Bynum play? The Lakers may like to put everything behind them regarding Andrew Bynum's benching Tuesday against Golden State for taking an ill-advised three-pointer. Still, even if Lakers Coach Mike Brown said Bynum didn't cause any problems in Wednesday's practice, it matters more what happens in the games. Despite Bynum's claims to the contrary, I'd be highly surprised if he actually took another three-pointer.
But what's more unpredictable involves his effort level on defense and rebounding. Though Bynum's averaged a stellar 22.3 points per game on 63.5% shooting, he hasn't averaged double-digit rebounds in the last five games. Even if Pau Gasol has logged 15.6 rebounds per game in the past three, Bynum can't afford to have a sub-par effort. The Thunder's Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka are highly physical, so it's critical both the Lakers' frontline and defensive effort remains high.
2. Expect an emotional setting for Derek Fisher's return. The Lakers may feel relieved there's finally a Oklahoma City guard that can't help beat them off the dribble. But teammates are wary of Fisher possibility hitting a game-winning dagger after the Lakers shipped him off two weeks ago. Besides that possiblity, the Lakers will have to handle their emotions properly in a game that probably will feature a touching video tribute and rousing ovation at Staples Center. As much as Kobe Bryant professed it will be "weird" to face Fisher in a Thunder uniform, he's hardly letting that prevent him from playing physical with him. Bryant's teammates should follow suit.
3. How will the Lakers' upgrade at point guard match Oklahoma City's speed? So the Lakers finally addressed their point guard deficiencies by bringing in Ramon Sessions. The Lakers have experienced immediate returns on their investment. But it remains interesting to see how this plays out with Oklahoma City. The Lakers made this move while keeping in mind they could meet the Thunder in the playoffs. They have also experienced a transition period with how Bryant scores without handling the ball. A solid performance against the Thunder will bring a lot more clarity to what degree the Lakers have adjusted.
4. Can Metta World Peace limit Kevin Durant? The last time the two met, Durant scored 33 points on 12-for-22 shooting just before the All-Star break. Since then, World Peace appears more in shape and more engaged in making hustle plays and defensive stops. He's shown some good signs with his lockdown defense, holding LeBron James, Paul Pierce and Vince Carter under 50% shooting. But stopping Durant, whom World Peace has considered in recent seasons the second best player behind Bryant, will prove to be a harder challenge.
5. The Lakers will need more bench production. Lost in the aftermath of Bynum's benching against Golden State was Matt Barnes posting a season-high 18 points on seven-for-10 shooting and 10 rebounds. It marked a solid eight-game stretch where Barnes has cracked double digits in five of them and shot above 50% in six of them. It's likely the Lakers will need more of that since the rest of the bench has offered little lately. That includes Steve Blake (12 points in last seven games), Josh McRoberts (14 in last six) and Troy Murphy (scoreless in last three).
Either Barnes will have to elevate his game even more or the rest of the unit will have to show more consistent execution to match Oklahoma City. That's because the Thunder features the 10th most efficient unit in the league, led by James Harden (17.3 points per game).
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