After losing Game 1 to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Los Angeles Lakers flipped the switch.
It was a switch they had not been able to find since entering the bubble, but Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Carmelo Anthony seemed to guide them to it.
Now, they must watch the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder battle it out for the chance to advance. Out of all of the series to take place in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, this one had the most backstory behind it.
On the court, each player just wanted to win and continue improving their chances at an NBA championship.
Off the court, however, it was not all that simple.
Just a year ago, the Rockets traded Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder in order to acquire Russell Westbrook because they did not feel as though he and James Harden meshed well together.
When they sent him there, they did not expect him to be contending for a title and thought that they were throwing Paul’s best chance at a championship out the window, but they did it anyway. Paul’s relationship with Harden deteriorated in front of the public eye and he became the scapegoat for Houston’s issues.
On the other side of things, Westbrook was leaving the Thunder for the first time since he was drafted in 2008. He came into the organization as a 20-year old kid and left it as a 30-year old man who impacted the franchise in unspeakable ways.
While Paul is seeking redemption, Westbrook is looking for validation. After all of the struggles that he overcame in Oklahoma City, he needs to be able to know that leaving all of that behind was worth it.
For Paul, this series will serve as a proverbial “F*** you” to the Rockets and Harden while also continuing to cement his legacy as one of the best point guards to ever play the game.
One thing is for certain, Game 7 will provide some form of closure for both of the future Hall of Famers.
However, whichever team does move on will have to face a well-rested, highly motivated Lakers team in the second round and the LakeShow are probably hoping it is the Thunder.
While both teams have immense firepower, the Rockets edge the Thunder just slightly. The Lakers would much rather matchup with Paul and Shai-Gilgeous Alexander than Westbrook and Harden.
Not to mention, the Rockets are also one of the league’s most dynamic three-point shooting teams and also manage to defend the three very well. Sure, they are drastically undersized and Anthony Davis would likely have a mismatch every time down the court but they are also much more capable of knocking down 20 threes in a game and blowing the Lakers out of the water.
Over the course of the regular season, the Lakers held a 1-2 record vs. the Rockets and have lost each of the last two matchups. In the two games that he’s played vs. the Purple and Gold, Westbrook is averaging 38 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 6.5 assists on 62.7 percent shooting from the field.
On top of that, Harden is putting up 29.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 8.7 assists on 44.9 percent shooting from the field in the three games that he has suited up against the Lakers this season. It is not just the two of them though, the Lakers are also allowing seven members of the Rockets to shoot above 32.0 percent from deep range in their matchups, which is a recipe for disaster.
In comparison, the Lakers held a 3-0 record against the Thunder, including a win without both James and Davis, before dropping a game to them during the seeding period of the bubble. Against the Lakers, Danilo Gallinari is the only Thunder player to average more than 19.3 points but is also one of only four players to have a negative plus/minus on the team during their matchups.
The Lakers have done an incredible job containing Paul in all of their contests, limiting him to just 14.8 points, 7.8 assists, and 5.3 rebounds in 31.1 minutes.
Combine that with the fact that the Thunder have not been shooting well during the postseason and it is easy to see why the Lakers would rather face-off against them next round. During their six playoff games, the Thunder have shot just 30.6 percent from deep as a team, the second-worst mark in the NBA.
They have also committed 16.2 turnovers per game since entering the playoffs which is the most of any Western Conference team. The Lakers thrive off of running in transition and excel when in the fastbreak, putting them in a perfect position to capitalize off of the Thunder’s mistakes.
Despite having Paul, the Thunder have assisted the ball a league-low 16.8 times per game during the playoffs which is yet another flaw that the Lakers could take advantage of with their stifling defense.
With both the Rockets and Thunder gear up for Game 7, the Lakers will be carefully watching and should be quietly rooting for Oklahoma City to pull off the upset.