Lakers can’t match Thunder’s youth and good health
The top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers vs. the eighth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder.
Or, in other words:
Kobe Bryant, a four-time champion nicknamed “Black Mamba,” vs. the baby-faced scoring champ Kevin Durant, nicknamed “Durantula.” Phil Jackson, 64, with 10 title rings as a coach vs. Scott Brooks, a second-year man 20 years his junior.
And a legendary Lakers franchise with 15 banners worth of tradition in the celebrity-infested Staples Center vs. the Thunder, a transplanted franchise just two years into its Midwestern abode, the Ford Center.
Yes, the Lakers deserve a landslide edge in this first-round matchup. But the Thunder could still shock Lakerdom and send the Lakers packing. Here’s why:
Healthier bodies: Kobe Bryant (finger, ankle, knee), Andrew Bynum (left Achilles’ strain), Shannon Brown (right thumb), Ron Artest (mild ankle sprain), Jordan Farmar (strained hamstring) and Sasha Vujacic (severe ankle sprain) are hurting. Except for Vujacic, all are expected to play Sunday. But at what level?
Meantime, center Nenad Krstic (right knee) is the Thunder’s only questionable player.
Youth/speed: The Thunder have the youngest playoff-bound core of players since 1952, according to a sports-reference.com analysis performed for the Wall Street Journal, which tabbed the average age of the Thunder’s main contributors at 23.19, the lowest average of 693 playoff teams.
Those fresh legs, with former UCLA Bruin Russell Westbrook at point guard, created an up-tempo style that gave the Lakers fits this season — two of the Lakers’ three wins came by just three points. That youth will challenge them again this series, especially because the Lakers have four key players in their 30s: Bryant, Artest, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher.
Kevin Durant: The smoothest scorer since George “The Iceman” Gervin, the “Durantula” is a terrifying matchup at 6 feet 9 with a shooting range to the parking lot.
The NBA’s youngest-ever regular-season scoring champion (30.1 ppg) also took 10.2 foul shots per game this season — which Phil Jackson wasfined $35,000 for ridiculing. He also averaged 25.8 points against the Lakers this season. And he’ll get his points this series, no matter how Artest guards him.
Defense: Among 30 NBA teams in the regular season, Oklahoma City ranked 11th in scoring defense (98.0 ppg), led the league in blocks per game (5.9) and was sixth in steals per game (8.0).
Thabo Sefolosha, one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, will face Bryant, the same guy he forced into nine turnovers in their last game.
But the X factor could be the Thunder’s freakishly athletic 6-foot-10 forward Serge Ibaka. He tries to swat at everything (1.3 blocks per game), and the Republic of Congo native called “Air Congo” alters most of the rest.
Momentum/expectations: The defending champion Lakers have played uninspired ball for months.
Oklahoma City, winner of 50 games after only 23 victories last season, has oodles of talent, athleticism and team chemistry.
Only three eighth-seeded teams have upset a No. 1 team in NBA playoff history: Denver over Seattle in 1994, New York over Miami in 1999, and Golden State over Dallas in 2007. But the Thunder is as good as any of those three teams.
Many people expect the Lakers to reach the Finals, but no one expects much of the Thunder. As Shakespeare wrote, “Having nothing, nothing can he lose.”