Oklahoma City at L.A. Lakers
Time: 9:30 PM CT, TNT
Spread: OKC -3
Odds c/o 5dimes
The Oklahoma City Thunder and L.A. Lakers will face each other once again, some four days since the teams last clashed. The Lakers (improbably) won the last matchup 108-104 in Oklahoma City, and now the teams will meet in Los Angeles.
Also since that matchup L.A. knocked off the Phoenix Suns, but still sits at 22-31 on the season and a deep long-shot to do much more than return to the NBA lottery in 2018. Outside of that, the Lakers are 3-point underdogs in this affair with an over/under set at 217 points.
The Lakers made some waves today in dealing Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson for Cleveland Cavaliers guard Isaiah Thomas. Thomas will serve as a big scorer and spark off the bench behind rookie Lonzo Ball, though he has struggled mightily since leaving the Boston Celtics and has his clear defensive limitations as a 5-foot-9 guard. Even so, to obtain a player who finished top-5 in MVP voting a year ago at the low cost of Clarkson and Nance has to be seen as a good move for L.A. The only outstanding issue is that Thomas is a defensive nightmare, and the Lakers are already putrid on that end of the court.
Over the last 10 games, Utah product and rookie Kyle Kuzma has tailed quite a bit. He is averaging 11 points, three rebounds and 1.2 assists over his last 10 games while playing just 23.3 minutes a night. It is possible he has hit the rookie wall, especially looking at his 41.8 percent shooting percentage, which has been just 35.7 over the Lakers last three games.
Brandon Ingram is coming on strong, however, and has averaged 17 points and 5.8 assists over the Lakers last five games. He posted 26 points on 9 of 12 shooting in the win over Phoenix.
Lonzo Ball has ruled out with a knee injury that will cause him to miss this contest, too.
Julius Randle has seen an uptick in playing time and is averaging 18.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 27 minutes a night over the Lakers’ past 10 games. Randle had 19 points, 12 rebounds and two assists in the 102-99 victory over Brooklyn on Feb. 2, and he has averaged 19.2 points and nine rebounds over his last five games. He had 21 points, five assists and eight boards in the win over Phoenix. Perhaps he is being showcased for an eventual trade, or it is really just the decline of Kuzma’s rookie season. It is difficult to tell which, if not both, is the case.
The fact that Randle has come on in Kuzma’s decline is no accident, but the Lakers have been winning more games with the more-experienced Randle seeing the bulk of the minutes at the 4-spot. L.A.’s defense has been so poor already, that it can only improve even if Randle is defensively undersized as a power forward. Nance Jr’s departure does clear the front court crowding up some.
The Lakers have the different cogs to rotate in at forward, and if Kuzma begins (or continues?) to hit a rookie wall it will only result in more minutes for the more-productive veterans. That is to say, the Lakers may win a few extra games despite being in an overall tank effort, simply because Randle is a rougher and better interior player than Kuzma, and Nance Jr. is a better defender than both, but defense is a clear non-issue given the trade for Thomas, and the Lakers are still in a rebuild. So, there is that.
OKC is 19-9 at home this season, but it has lost its past three outings to the New Orleans Pelicans (at home), Denver Nuggets and Washington Wizards. Prior to that skid, the Thunder had won eight straight games. Still, at 31-24, Oklahoma City is in the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference and it seems their best ball still could be in front of them as a team.
Carmelo Anthony has adapted now to a tertiary role on the team, with Paul George and Russell Westbrook doing the heavy offensive-lifting. Anthony still averages 17.4 points and six rebounds per game, but he does so in “just” 32.7 minutes a night, while George and Westbrook play 36-plus respectively. Steven Adams is making a strong impact on the interior as one of the most underrated 5-men in the Association, and his 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds do precious little justice to what an impact he has as the main defensive piece in OKC’s strong defensive attack.
Veteran Andre Roberson provides similar role at the tune of 26.6 minutes of tough defense per game, while Terrence Ferguson has looked promising a rookie in his spot minutes (and 11 starts!). The Thunder quietly have built some depth on its roster, and Raymond Felton still serves as a good spark in the second unit, along with small forward Jerami Grant, who has averaged 7.5 points per game in his 52 appearances this year.
The Thunder seem to have just enough firepower and just enough depth to be a top-5 team in the West, but do they have enough to contend with Golden State and Houston?
Thus far, the answer may be “yes.” The Thunder are 4-1 against Golden State, Houston and San Antonio this year, and they seem to save their best games for the heavy-hitters. Losses like the one last time it faced the Lakers, however, are less explicable and somewhat indicative of underlying issues in OKC that revolve mostly around three stars trying to adapt to one another.
Is the best yet to come for the Thunder? No one knows, of course.