For the first time in what seems like years, the Lakers are heavy underdogs heading into a playoff series.
Los Angeles faces Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Semifinals, and the Thunder are expected to win. According to the online sportsbook Bovada, the odds of the Thunder taking the series are set at minus 450.
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The two teams met in the postseason two years ago, but things were much different in 2010. As the top seed in the conference, the Lakers were the experienced favorites and the Thunder were the up-and-coming team that wasn't ready to beat the defending champions.
Los Angeles won that series in six games, and two years later, the tables have turned.
Oklahoma City was one of the best teams all year. They finished the season second in the West, and had the third best record in the NBA.
The Lakers had a strong season, but weren't nearly as dominant. They won the Pacific Division by one game, and finished just five games out of the eighth spot in the Conference.
The Thunder won two of the three meetings between the teams in the regular season, and have home-court advantage in this best-of-seven series. It will be difficult for the Lakers to pull off the upset, but it's certainly not impossible.
There are a few ways the Lakers can beat the Thunder and advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Kobe Bryant Outplays Kevin Durant
In the past few seasons, Kevin Durant has surpassed Kobe Bryant as the best player in the West.
Durant beat out Bryant to win his third straight scoring title. NBA fans used to argue about whether Bryant or LeBron James was the best player in the game. Now, Durant has replaced Bryant in that conversation.
While Bryant may not be what he once was, he's still one of the best in the league. He averaged 27.9 points in the regular season, and led the Lakers to another Division title. Perhaps more important, Kobe has played more playoff games than anyone in the NBA.
Bryant is one of the best playoff performers in history, and has enough left to have another great series. He may not be the player he once was, but Bryant showed in the first round that he still has the ability to make big shots. If he is able to outplay Durant, Los Angeles would be very difficult to beat.
The team that survives a seven-game series is often the one with the best player on the court. If Bryant can turn back the clock a little bit, it's possible that the Lakers will advance past the Thunder.
Lakers Front Court Domination
Los Angeles may have the best center-power forward combination in the league.
Pau Gasol has been one of the NBA's best big men for the past few years, and Andrew Bynum has emerged as the best center this side of Dwight Howard. No one can match the Lakers size, with both Gasol and Bynum standing at seven-feet tall.
The problem with the two big men has been their inconsistency.
The Lakers series went the distance with the Nuggets, in large part due to Gasol and Bynum's inability to play well every night. Kobe Bryant called them out for their lack of effort in Game 6, and the two responded with monster performances in Game 7.
Oklahoma City has one of the best defensive frontlines in the NBA. Serge Ibaka finished second in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year, and Kendrick Perkins is a force at center.
However, they are not the offensive players that Gasol and Bynum are. Also, Perkins' and Ibaka's defensive prowess do not translate to rebounding. The Lakers duo averaged a combined 22.2 boards per contest, while OKC's big men recorded just 14.1 rebounds each game.
If Los Angeles is able to dominate the glass and get consistent efforts from Gasol and Bynum, there's a good chance they'll be moving on.
Lakers Bench Comes Up Big
Los Angeles beat OKC in their final regular season matchup because of one reason--their bench was dominant. The Lakers bench outscored the Thunder's 38-29. L.A. reserves ended the game with an average plus-minus rating of plus 12.
It's too much to expect the Lakers bench to outperform the Thunder's for the entire series. After all, Oklahoma City has the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year in James Harden.
But the Lakers reserves at least keeping pace with the Thunder's would go a long way to keeping them in the series.
Backup point guard Steve Blake only averaged 5.2 points per game during the season, but he's been a key in a few of the team's playoff wins. He scored a season-high 19 points in L.A.'s Game 7 victory against the Nuggets.
Oklahoma City's biggest advantage is at the point guard position. The combination of Blake and starter Ramon Sessions pales in comparison to Russell Westbrook of the Thunder.
If the Lakers guards can come close to matching the production of Westbrook, it would go a long way in helping Los Angeles pull off the upset.
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