The Los Angeles Lakers have still yet to play up to expectations in the 2012-2013 season. With Mike D’Antoni instituting a new offensive system, and Steve Nash missing every game but two, L.A. is still struggling at 9-10.
Now, the Lakers may face their toughest test of the year.
Los Angeles will visit the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night. While L.A. has struggled, OKC has picked up where they left off last season, winning 15 of their first 19 games.
When the Lakers traded for Dwight Howard and Nash in the offseason, they overtook the Thunder as the favorites in the Western Conference to make the NBA Finals. Nineteen games into the season, however, Oklahoma City seems to have a much better chance of making a deep playoff run.
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It’s the first time the two teams will meet since OKC knocked L.A. out of the second round of last year’s playoffs. The Thunder are expected to win, once again, as they have been tabbed as 7.5 favorites by most Las Vegas oddsmakers.
Despite what the betting line says, Kevin Durant and the Thunder say they still believe the Lakers are a dangerous opponent.
"It's early in the year, they're a really good team," said Durant. "They've got so many good players, so many champions. They're going to turn this thing around pretty quickly."
Oklahoma City may be the better team at this point, but Los Angeles does have the league’s top scorer. Kobe Bryant leads all players with 28 points per game. He’s done so on a career-high 49 percent field goal shooting percentage.
Right behind Bryant in the race for the scoring title is Durant. He’s putting up 26.5 points per contest, and bested Bryant last year for his third straight scoring title.
While Bryant has carried L.A. on offense, Durant has had plenty of help. The Thunder are the highest scoring team in basketball at 105.7 points per game. One of the biggest reasons has been the emergence of Serge Ibaka. He’s raised his scoring average 5.4 points from last year.
Ibaka’s presence in the middle could give the Lakers some trouble. Dwight Howard hasn’t been the dominant defensive force that he once was, and Pau Gasol will miss another game with tendinitis in his knees.
L.A. hopes Chris Duhon can continue his play from the past couple of games. After struggling to contribute with Nash and Steve Blake out with injuries, the point guard has dished out 17 assists over the past two games. He’s taken minutes away from Darius Morris, who had been starting in the backcourt.
After taking Morris’s starting spot, Duhon will be forced to deal with one of the best point guards in the league. Russell Westbrook has become an even better passer this season, lowering his scoring averaging, but dishing out three more assists each night.
The game is set to tip off at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. You can watch a free live stream online at espn3.com.
Prediction: With the Thunder winning six straight and the Lakers still having trouble, OKC is simply playing much better right now. They’re 9-2 at home, while the Lakers have just two road wins this season. Oklahoma City might win this one very comfortably.
Predicted Score: Oklahoma City 117, Los Angeles 102