Let me be clear- I still think the Lakers are going to win this series. I'm not willing to bet the proverbial farm, but it's still my pick. It's a best-of-three, with two games at Staples. And while people are rightly concerned, if our poll data is any indication, I'm impressed with the confidence and calm displayed by the faithful. It's the playoffs, and the playoffs are supposed to be hard. "This," Kobe Bryant said Monday at practice, "is how playoff basketball is supposed to be.
Good for ratings, bad for blood pressure.
I have, however, seen too many comparisons (from fans and media alike) between this first round tussle with the Thunder and last year's seven game series with the Rockets. Yes, there are some cosmetic similarities. Quick point guards to defend, frustrating periods of ineffectiveness for the Lakers, low post advantages seeming ripe for exploitation, and so on.
But this series is, in the immortal words of Ted Striker, an entirely different kind of flying. Altogether.
(Anyone sitting at his computer who just said, "It's an entirely different kind of flying," congratulations. You win a Land O'Lakers Gold Star.)
Five reasons why:
1. This Lakers team isn't that Lakers team. First, there's health. Outside of Andrew Bynum's knee, the Lakers were about as healthy last season as is reasonably possible after an 82 game season. This year's version is beat up on almost every level. Even guys who aren't playing are in tatters, as evidenced by another round of laser eye surgery for D.J. Mbenga. Plus...
2. ...that Lakers team was better than this one. They performed better in the regular season, played better heading into the playoffs, and responded better to adversity. As I noted Sunday, the top end for this group is still more a theoretical construct than something seen with consistency on the floor.
3. The Lakers, when they bothered to show up against the Rockets, were the far superior team, particularly after Yao went down with his foot injury in Game 3. L.A.'s average margin of victory over their four wins was 24. The gap between the Lakers and Thunder hasn't been as large. Average margin of victory for the Lakers in their two wins: 5.5. Major difference. Though they won the opening two games and led most of Game 3, I haven't seen anything demonstrating an ability to dominate the Thunder like they did Houston.
4. Oklahoma City is a better team than last year's Rockets squad, particularly one lacking Yao.
5. The Thunder have a number of strengths playing specifically to L.A.'s weaknesses, the most prominent being their ability to run effectively. The Rockets tried to become a faster team after Yao went down, but fundamentally were built around a big center. Oklahoma City is more athletic, faster, and have tried to push pace for a while now. They're better equipped to take advantage of L.A.'s relative lack of athleticism and completely non-relative inability to hit perimeter shots. Add guys like Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha along with a great defense, and the matchup becomes more problematic.
And as we all know, matchups are king in the playoffs.
Of course, the real danger isn't in folks like you or me making the comparison, but if the team bought in. They don't. The Lakers were clearly unable to match OKC's athleticism and energy in Game 4, but not because they were looking past them.
Complacency isn't the issue, and nobody expects the Thunder to roll over. Which is good, because if they did the Lakers would already be dead men walking.