Lakers Win, but Trouble Lurks
Two huge elements stuck out most during Sunday's Game 1 that hint towards this being a longer series than many people think.
First, Russell Westbrook is a problem. His explosive drives in transition made Derek Fisher look every bit of 35. A 9-for-15 shooting performance is one thing, but the ease in which he got those points -- blowing by everybody and hanging in the air to convert seemingly every opportunity around the basket -- is another. We know Fisher isn't the defender he once was, but Westbrook's ability to beat him off the bounce is an issue for LA.
The key for Westbrook moving forward in the series is to get into the paint more in the halfcourt. Scotty Brooks is a good adjustment maker, so there's no reason to think he won't exploit that match-up for all its worth. If I'm Phil Jackson, I'm putting Kobe on Westbrook the rest of the series, as he exerted little to no energy guarding Thabo Sefolosha, anemic offensively, or even Jeff Green. Slide Fisher over to Sefolosha to start the game and give Jordan Farmar, and especially Shannon Brown, more minutes. Both of them can score, but more importantly, both, particularly Brown, can really defend.
As Kobe begins to assert himself offensively in the second half, the Lakers should allow Brown's young legs and physical strength to spell him and guard Westbrook, who clearly displayed he is not afraid playing in his first playoff series. Westbrook is aggressive and readily aware of his advantages. Expect him to utilize his explosiveness to either score or dish off in the paint or to the perimeter.
Secondly, Durant struggled mightily in Game 1, shooting just 7-for-24 from the field (1-for-8 from beyond the arc) while appearing oddly uncomfortable at the offensive end. Ron Artest was the difference-maker the Lakers hoped they were getting when they brought him in last summer.
But don't overreact after one game. Durant was the NBA's leading scorer this year for a reason -- OK, a lot of reasons (read No. 5)-- and you have to think he'll get back on track in Game 2. But think about this: Durant had perhaps one of his worst games of the season, Green also struggled, and the Thunder still maintained striking distance throughout the entire second half. You never want to invest too heavily in moral victories, but you have to be impressed by Oklahoma City's resilience.
Now, will Kobe shoot 6-for-19 again? Probably not. But Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol were both great, as was the Lakers' bench. If Durant has just a decent game, we could be looking at a different result. As he finds his stroke, the Thunder have enough firepower to make this a legitimate series.
While L.A. bothered Durant during the regular season (his third-lowest scoring average against any team was against the Lakers), it may not matter as much as we think. In Oklahoma City's lone regular-season win versus the champs, Durant went for a "regular" 26 points on 9-for-19 shooting, including only 1-for-7 from 3-point range. In that game, Westbrook put up 23 on a super-efficient 10-13 performance. The Thunder have clearly proven they can beat the Lakers without a superhuman effort from their star.
I'm not saying they will win, but by winning two or even three games and pushing LA, they can tire them while ultimately exposing them to future opponents. Dallas looked good against the Spurs, while Denver looked fantastic in their Game 1 victory over the Jazz. In a sense, the Nuggets are a more experienced version of the Thunder: a great wing scorer in Carmelo Anthony (think Durant), an excellent point guard who kills in transition in Chauncey Billups (Westbrook, although in a different way), a talented third scorer in J.R. Smith (Green), an effective rookie back-up point guard in Ty Lawson (Eric Maynor), and an upper-echelon defender in Arron Afflalo (Sefolosha).
L.A. will ultimately beat the Thunder, but at what cost? Denver and Dallas are both lurking in the West, their best opportunity to knock off the Lakers since 2007.