The series between the Lakers and Thunder features not only two of the NBA's great scorers, but also some of the league's better defenders countering them. The Lakers have Metta World Peace for Kevin Durant, while the Thunder offer Thabo Sefolosha on Kobe Bryant, supported by James Harden and at times, Durant.
Both defensive stoppers have been effective, as ESPN Stats and Information illustrates, starting with MWP on Durantula:
"With World Peace on the court, Durant scored just 22.9 points per 40 minutes, down 6.2 points from his season average of 29.1. Durant connected on 17 of 40 shots (42.5 percent) in the 77 minutes he was on the floor with World Peace, also well below his season average of 49.6 percent. And while Durant makes a living at the line (7.9 FTA per 40 minutes), he averaged getting there just 2.6 times."
The drop in free throw attempts is particularly significant. One intriguing aspect of the series pits OKC's league leading ability to get to the stripe (.269 FT's per FGA) against L.A.'s ability to keep teams off it (.158 FT's per FGA against, also tops in the NBA). The team doing more to preserve regular season trends will have a major leg up, and obviously limiting Durant's opportunities goes a long way towards limiting the Thunder as a team.
Stats and Info also breaks down the Thunder's effectiveness this year against Kobe:
"Bryant struggled mightily with his shot against the Thunder in three games this season – 24.3 points per game on 30.7 percent from the field (23-75) – down from his season averages of 27.9 points and 43.0 percent.
But Bryant particularly struggled against Sefolosha, going just 9-33 (27.2 percent) from the field this season when Sefolosha was the primary on the ball defender against him (Sefolosha played in two of three games against the Lakers this season). Since Sefolosha’s first full season with the Thunder back in 2009-10, Bryant has shot just 39.6 percent (72-182) from the field in the 360 minutes he’s been on the floor with Sefolosha (six postseason games in 2010 included)."
OKC's ability to supplement Sefolosha's defense with Harden's gives Thunder coach Scott Brooks a lot of flexibility. He can pull Sefolosha -- a more limited offensive player -- without fearing Bryant will automatically dominate in his absence or require heavy double-teaming. The Lakers will need to show some creativity in how they get the ball into Kobe's hands, using more screening action allowing him to catch on the move in multiple locations, rather than isolated on the wing.
Good post play will also help, drawing eyes and attention away from Bryant, affording him more freedom.
One more thing could impact Kobe's offensive output: How often he's matched up at the other end against OKC's All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook.
In the third regular season meeting between the teams, Bryant took on that formidable defensive assignment with great success, holding Westbrook to 3-of-22 shooting.
Should Ramon Sessions/Steve Blake combined with attention to detail as a team in pick and roll coverages not be enough to slow Westbrook offensively (a legitimate possibility), Mike Brown will face an interesting choice about which side of the ball he believes Bryant can make the greatest contribution. Over seven games, asking Kobe to take on the energy sucking role of defending Westbrook full time while simultaneously anchoring L.A.'s offense is a lot, even for him. While it's not entirely an either/or proposition --Kobe hit big shots late on April 22, despite his assignment at the other end -- over time, it's reasonable to expect checking Westbrook would leave him with less energy to score.
Ironically, OKC's success in defending Kobe could make the decision easier. If he's not efficiently piling up points anyway, the Lakers don't lose much by sticking Bryant on Westbrook. Ideally, the Lakers won't have to go there, but should the need arise it'll be interesting to see how fast the Lakers make the switch.