As the regular season draws to a close, one question still remains for the Lakers. Can they catch the San Antonio Spurs for the first seed in the West?
Yet, I pose another question. Should the Lakers even want to catch the Spurs?
If the Lakers take over the top seed out West, they’ll most likely have the top record in the league. That means they’ll have home-court regardless of who they face, an advantage they haven’t had in their previous three runs to the Finals.
Yet at the same time, does this Laker team need it? Doesn’t L.A. need somewhat of a challenge to keep themselves engaged in the postseason?
For the Lakers, it seems their success tends to lead to complacency. It’s obvious that they play bored at times, reluctant to put forth the necessary effort to continuously dominate their less-talented opponents.
Their stellar, post-ASW stretch of 15-1 didn’t come out of nowhere. The Lakers have been criticized and critiqued all season, adding fuel to their fire and sparking their motivated play as of late.
Obviously the Lakers understand its the stretch run before the playoffs, which is why they’ve turned it up a notch. At the same time, though, don’t doubt for one second that their impressive run of dominance has nothing to do with the media labeling the Bulls, Celtics, Heat and Spurs “favorites” to win the title.
Furthermore, it actually seems L.A.’s path to the Finals would be much easier as the two-seed. As good as Dallas is, a Mavericks team without Caron Butler doesn’t pose as many threats to L.A. as a healthy, young Oklahoma City Thunder team does.
While the Mavericks may have a deeper and more experienced team, they lack the athleticism, quickness, and firepower that the Thunder have. The Thunder have not just one, but two players that are capable of taking over a game.
Despite Kevin Durant’s notable struggles against Ron Artest, Durant still manages to get his usual numbers most of the time (albeit in an inefficient manner). Russell Westbrook continually torches L.A.’s defense (or point guards), forcing Kobe Bryant to switch on to him (which is still somewhat of a mismatch).
In addition, the Thunder added L.A.’s kryptonite — Kendrick Perkins. Perkins dominated L.A. defensively in the 2008 Finals, and was still very effective against L.A. in last year’s Finals. He has publicly called Pau Gasol “soft” and labeled Phil Jackson as “arrogant.” There is no love lost there.
With Perkins in the mix, as well as the ever-developing Serge Ibaka, the Thunder now have the size and defensive capabilities of at least challenging L.A.’s big men. No one, and I mean no one, can stop L.A.’s bigs, but the Thunder pose the biggest threat to containing them and giving them fits.
Don’t forget about the Thunder’s shooting guard tandem of James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha. Sefolosha plays Kobe defensively as well as almost anyone in the NBA. He can’t score, but he affects the game in ways that don’t show up in the box score. Harden, on the other hand, has averaged 16.4 points of the bench in the month of March, more than replacing the lost offense of the departed Jeff Green.
In the previous match-up between L.A. and OKC, Harden played 28 crucial minutes, scoring 14 points and physically hounding Bryant into a poor 8-for-22 shooting night.
Besides the Grizzlies’ duo of Shane Battier and Tony Allen (and the Heat’s combo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade), there probably isn’t a better tandem of wings that can attempt to “contain” Bryant. Sefolosha has the length and quickness to match Bryant, while Harden has the strength and toughness.
With that said, the Mavericks will be no cakewalk either. Dirk Nowitzki is having another career season. Jason Terry and Shawn Marion have routinely killed the Lakers off the bench this season. Tyson Chandler is the leader of one of the league’s best defenses. Jason Kidd is Jason Kidd.
All in all, neither team is likely to beat the Lakers in the playoffs. Both team present their own challenges, yet it is clear which team hurts the Lakers more. Last season, the 8th-seeded Thunder took L.A. to six games and the brink of a seventh. They are clearly a much better team this season, which doesn’t bode well for L.A.
Add this all up, and it seems L.A. will face a major challenge in the Western Conference Semifinals. Yet if I’m the Lakers, I not only want the two-seed because of its added intrigue, I want the two-seed because of the opponent I’ll be facing in the second round.
At this point, though, L.A. should place their attention on Thursday’s match-up with Dallas. If they look too far ahead, they may lose track of whats at stake.
Tags: Caron Butler Dirk Nowitzki Dwyane Wade James Harden Jason Kidd Jason Terry Jeff Green Kendrick Perkins Kevin Durant Kobe Bryant Lamar Odom Lebron James Los Angeles Lakers Pau Gasol Phil Jackson Ron Artest Russell Westbrook Serge Ibaka Shane Battier Shawn Marion Thabo Sefolosha Tony Allen Tyson Chandler