Lakers center Dwight Howard forces Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)
The Lakers (30-30) visit the Oklahoma City Thunder (43-16) on Tuesday night.
The league will likely announce Tuesday whether Thunder forward Serge Ibaka will be penalized for Sunday's low blow to Clippers forward Blake Griffin. Though a suspension is far from a lock, Detroit Pistons guard Will Bynum was recently given one game off for a similar misstep.
Oklahoma City is one of the top three teams in the league. The Lakers beat the Thunder in January at Staples Center but, Ibaka or not, taking them down in their building is a very difficult task.
So far this season, OKC has lost a total of four home games.
Coach Mike D'Antoni confirmed Monday that he expects to start Kobe Bryant on Russell Westbrook defensively.
Westbrook is an explosive scorer, averaging 23.4 points a game along with 7.9 assists. He also leads his team in turnovers at 3.6 and shoots a relatively average three-point percentage.
The Lakers will have their hands full with the three-point shooting of Kevin Durant (42.2%) and Kevin Martin (43.3%). If Westbrook's jumper from distance is falling, the Thunder can be nearly unbeatable.
Meanwhile, Bryant is having one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 27.3 points a game on 47.2% shooting with 5.6 assists. In addition to guarding Westbrook, the Lakers will need Bryant to carry a heavy load of scoring and play-making duties.
Durant is almost always a lock for 30 points a game. Certainly Metta World Peace and Earl Clark can try to make a difference for the Lakers by tag-teaming Durant.
The Lakers will have their better defenders on Durant and Westbrook, but that probably leaves Steve Nash guarding Thabo Sefolosha. The Lakers will have to live with that, given Sefolosha isn't a primary scorer, but what about when the Thunder play the 6-foot-7 Martin instead? Nash is going to be at a disadvantage.
Martin isn't going to regularly take Nash into the post, but he's tall enough to shoot over the veteran point guard.
D'Antoni will mix in Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake, but with the game on the line, Nash is going to need to guard someone.
The Lakers may have a slight advantage if Ibaka is suspended for the game. He's a crucial part of what Oklahoma City does defensively. Ibaka also averages an efficient 13.6 points a game on 56.3% shooting from the field.
The Lakers needed Pau Gasol to beat the Thunder at Staples Center. With or without Ibaka, Oklahoma City will be a true challenge on Tuesday night.
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Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.