When the Los Angeles Lakers (31-19) host the Oklahoma City Thunder (38-12) on Thursday night at Staples Center, there will be no shortage of story lines.
The main story will be the return of Derek Fisher to Los Angeles, where he will receive a thundering ovation. Fisher, who was dealt to the Houston Rockets at the trade deadline, found his way over to the Thunder, a team that poses perhaps the greatest threat to the Lakers' hopes of reaching the NBA Finals.
Fisher has been a major fan-favorite in Los Angeles. The hard-nosed point guard's professional career started at the same time as Kobe Bryant when the backcourt combo joined the Lakers in the first round of the 1996 NBA Draft.
The Fisher trade sparked discussion that the Lakers were slowly dismantling a veteran core that helped win multiple titles. Lamar Odom was traded in the offseason, and Fisher was dealt on the same day as mainstay Luke Walton.
Many eyes will be on Fisher to observe how he performs against his former teammates. The 37-year-old has been known to knock down clutch shots, and should the game come down to the wire, Fisher will likely want the ball to punish the club that sent him packing.
Another main story line is Lakers head coach Mike Brown's substitution patterns. Many Laker players had grown accustomed to the substitution strategy under Phil Jackson, and Brown now appears to be challenging conventional wisdom in back-to-back games by pulling Bryant midway through the fourth quarter, and then sitting center Andrew Bynum early in the fourth quarter the following game.
Brown had already come under some private criticism for his Xs and Os, and there had been rumblings that the Lakers preferred to move back to the Triangle Offense, which was the main half-court set of Tex Winter, who was Jackson's main strategist.
While many viewers will pay close attention to Fisher and Brown's substitutions, nearly everyone will be focused on the scoring of Bryant and superstar forward Kevin Durant. At the moment, Bryant leads the NBA in scoring with an average of 28.3, but Durant is just behind the veteran, at 27.8.
Durant is only 23, but he has already won the scoring title the past two seasons. The 6'9 sharpshooter is having his best season from the field, shooting an excellent 50.2 percent.
While the duel between Durant and Bryant will be interesting, there is perhaps a more interesting match up. While Russell Westbook is fifth in the NBA in scoring average (24.2), the Lakers have addressed the need to contain the explosive guard by acquiring Ramon Sessions.
Prior to the acquisition of Sessions, the Lakers were not particularly athletic at point guard. However, Sessions is a major improvement in that area. The 25-year-old will be called upon to contain the high-scoring Westbrook, in what could be a key clash heading into the playoffs.
Session is neither as talented nor athletic as Westbrook, but he could provide the Lakers with enough energy to prevent Westbrook from lighting them up, as other point guards have done in the past.
Finally, the ultimate story line is that the Lakers facing the Thunder in a battle of perhaps the two best teams in the Western Conference. The San Antonio Spurs have had a big season, but it's quite possible that the West will come down to the Lakers or the Thunder. Both clubs have legitimate superstars, and both clubs are desperate to make the Finals.
The game tips off at about 10:40 PM ET and can be seen on TNT. It can also be viewed online at http://nbaliveonline.com/streaming/
PREDICTION: The Lakers will be amped for this game, and can expect an aggressive performance from Bynum, The star center has been in the press for his early substitution in the fourth quarter and will likely be eager to make his presence felt against a rather under-sized Thunder squad. Expect Durant to have a big game, as he will likely be interested in taking advantage of his height advantage on Metta World Peace. The Lakers may pull off this win, because they have a little more to prove, and have proven to be quite strong at Staples Center.
PREDICTED SCORE: Lakers over Thunder, 105-101
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