February 8, 2018, 2:37 pm
The Lakers are playing their best basketball of the season, winning 11 of their last 15 games, the second-best mark in the NBA over that time frame.
Their recent success can largely be attributed to their vastly improved defense as they are fourth in the league with a 102.2 defensive rating during that stretch.
Los Angeles is on a three-game win streak sparked by two key roster changes implemented by coach Luke Walton — the insertion of Josh Hart into the starting lineup for Tyler Ennis (starting for injured Lonzo Ball) and moving Brandon Ingram to point guard on the offensive end of the ball. The two players have responded in spectacular form, in particular Hart who tallied three consecutive double-doubles while averaging 14.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.7 3-pointers and shooting 71.4 percent from the field. His rebounding has been so proficient that he has been dubbed Josh “Barkley” by several of his teammates.
Ingram has excelled in his new role to the tune of 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.3 blocked shots while shooting 53.8 percent from the field.
Both players have exuded leadership, played tremendous defense, and made clutch shots that have all been vital to the Laker win streak.
The Lakers have an 11-9 record with Julius Randle in the starting lineup but even he has elevated his play of late, averaging 19.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 56.8 percent from the floor. His recent success may have quelled the rumors that he will be dealt before Thursday’s trade deadline as his current and future value to the Lakers may now exceed the value other teams are willing to pay for the impending restricted free agent.
This contest will be a battle of two streaking teams as Oklahoma City has won 9-of-13 games to move into fifth place in the Western Conference. They are fresh off a convincing 125-105 in Oakland over the Golden State Warriors. However, two of their most important players, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony suffered sprained ankles and are considered questionable to face the Lakers.
Their unquestioned leader is reigning MVP Westbrook, who is averaging 25.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists and 2.0 steals per game.
Paul George is the Thunder’s second-leading scorer with 22.0 points per game while adding 5.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.5 blocks and a lead-leading 2.2 steals per game. The Lakers will reportedly focus their offseason recruiting efforts on the LA native, placing extra emphasis on each matchup between the two teams as well as every statement George makes regarding his future.
Los Angeles will still be without Ball who is still nursing a sprain of the MCL ligament in his knee. He has been able to ramp his activity but is still unable to practice without experience pain. On a non-basketball note, Ball announced Wednesday that his girlfriend is expecting their first child.
The Lakers have agreed to trade Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cleveland Cavaliers in return for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cavs’ 2018 first round-draft pick.
Because both the contracts the Lakers are taking back are expiring deals, the deal will potentially give the Lakers the ability to sign two max-contract free agents this summer, or the following offseason. It also gives them a coveted first-round pick and the bird-rights to Thomas, who was an All-Star last year while leading the Celtics to the top-seed in the East and a deep run in the playoffs.
Los Angeles had been shopping Clarkson for months in an attempt to gain financial flexibility going forward. To that end, this trade is a success as the Lakers achieved that goal as well as bringing back significant assets. The only concern is how this will affect the Lakers’ current team chemistry which had been excellent — both on and off the court. The young Lakers were getting along, growing together and succeeding on the court as well.
Thomas’ role with the Lakers in uncertain as Los Angeles has Ball, Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as potential backcourt starters. Thomas’ agent has already tweeted that he expects to start, a sentiment that could be met with resistance regarding the Lakers’ youth movement, recent success, and Thomas’ lackluster play as he recovers from a major hip injury. If he does insist on pushing for a buyout if not offered a starting role, the Lakers may consider moving him before the deadline or as part of a sign-and-trade during the offseason.
Laker fans who appreciated everything that Nance Jr. did for the team will be happy to see him going home to Cleveland and getting the opportunity to compete for a championship alongside LeBron James.
- Points in the paint will be a key metric in this game; the Lakers lead the league with 53.2 points in the paint compared to 44.0 point in the paint per game (16th) for the Thunder. Conversely, the Lakers struggle to defend the paint, allowing 48.8 points per game (29th) compared to the Thunder who concede just 42.2 points in the paint (7th). This battle of strengths vs. weakness will play a significant role in determining the outcome of this contest.
- The Thunder lead the league in second-chance points with 15.0 points per game while the Lakers are second in the league scoring 14.4 points per game. On the defensive side of that coin, Los Angeles allows 14.0 second-chance points (tied for 30th) while Oklahoma City concedes a more respectable 12.3 points (14th).
- The Lakers need to keep their turnovers under control — they average 16.1 miscues per game (29th) vs. 14.1 turnovers per game (12th) for the Thunder.
- Oklahoma City leads the league in points off turnovers with 19.0 points per game compared to the Lakers who average 16.5 points per game off turnovers (14th).
Projected Starting Rosters
Brandon Ingram (PG)
Josh Hart (SG)
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (SF)
Julius Randle (PF)
Brook Lopez (C)
Raymond Felton (PG)
Josh Huestis (SG)
Paul George (SF)
Jerami Grant (PF)
Steven Adams (C)
Lonzo Ball (knee/sprained MCL)
Andre Roberson (knee) – OUT
Carmelo Anthony (ankle) – OUT
Russell Westbrook (ankle) – OUT
Time: 7:30 PM PST, 10:30 PM EST
Television: TNT, FOX SPORTS OKLAHOMA, SPORTSNET ONE, TNT-SAP
Radio: 710 AM ESPN, 1330 AM ESPN DEPORTES, WWLS 98.1FM OKC