The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel, Jenni Carlson, Mike Baldwin and Mike Sherman weigh in on some compelling questions from the Thunder-Lakers series
Matchup that most favors the Thunder
Tramel: Russell Westbrook vs. Derek Fisher. Westbrook is too young, too quick and too strong for Fisher. The Lakers might have to adjust their entire rotation.
Carlson: Anything involving Kevin Durant. This might be K.D.'s first playoff experience, but the guy is growing up right before our eyes. He seems to figure out a new way to score every week. He'll be a handful for whomever guards him.
Baldwin: Many argue Fisher is the weak link for the Lakers. By improving his 15-foot, stop-and-pop shot and his ability to attack the rim, Westbrook could give the Thunder a chance to make it a competitive series.
Sherman: The point guard battle is the obvious edge, but the battle of the benches is worth watching. If the Lakers don't win the title, it will be because they stood pat at the deadline instead of fortifying their depth. OKC's upside is much greater, especially if Serge Ibaka avoids foul trouble and James Harden has rediscovered his offensive confidence. But then there's that NBA adage that role players don't travel well.
Matchup that most favors the Lakers
Tramel: Pau Gasol vs. Jeff Green. Gasol is a true center playing power forward. Green is a swingman playing power forward.
Carlson: Anything involving Kobe Bryant. I know Thabo Sefolosha held him in check when the Lakers came to town last month, but this is the playoffs. And Kobe is, well, Kobe in the playoffs. No matter who matches up on him, it will be advantage Lakers.
Baldwin: Gasol or Bynum vs. Krstic. The Lakers have an edge on every team they play, especially the Thunder. Nenad Krstic had one of his best defensive games in the Thunder's lopsided win in the Ford Center 17 days ago. Gasol is a handful for everyone. He could have a monster series.
Sherman: Bynum vs. whomever the Thunder sends to guard him. He averaged 18 points, eight rebounds and shot better than 60 percent when he played against OKC this season. When he's in there, it seems like the Thunder is playing the monsters from the Michael Jordan movie Space Jam.
Biggest cause for concern from the last two road losses games
Tramel: Recklessness. For some reason, the Thunder has started playing AAU ball. Wild passes. One-on-one. Nothing at all like the bulk of the season.
Carlson: The lack of energy and defense late in the game. Everyone knows that the fourth quarter is where games are won and lost in the NBA. Yet against the Warriors and the Blazers, the Thunder couldn't stop anybody from getting to the rim. Too many easy baskets in crunch time is troublesome.
Baldwin: The defense regressed the last two months. Brooks kept harping that the defense needed to get back to its previous standards, but it never did. The drop off defensively has been alarming. Not a good sign entering the playoffs.
Sherman: Russell Westbrook's play. He's shot 36 percent or worse in six of the last eight games. In the last six: 39 assists, 36 turnovers. The Thunder was 2-4 in those games.
Possible silver lining from the Thunder's late-season struggles
Tramel: Maybe the Thunder has been taught that it's not as good as it thought it was and it has to buckle down.
Carlson: Motivation. This team has been pretty darn good about bouncing back from bad performances. They have a pride about them that shines after poor stretches. Perhaps they bow up and fight back. Do that in the series opener in L.A., and the Thunder could score a rare playoff road victory.
Baldwin: The Thunder was competitive in probably 76 or 77 of its 82 games. The fact it has played almost every team close and owns one of the league's best road records is a sign this team matured quicker than anyone thought. Any team that can post road wins at Boston, Dallas, Phoenix, Portland, San Antonio, Utah, Atlanta and Miami, all playoff teams, can be competitive.
Sherman: Playing the Lakers means the Thunder won't be relegated to NBA-TV broadcasts, how's that?
Why are opposing point guards torching the Thunder?
Tramel: Westbrook's defense hasn't developed as quickly as his offense. The tonic is to turn the tables. Westbrook should penetrate. When he's going to the basket, he's a very effective player.
Carlson: Deron Williams. Chauncey Billups. Andre Miller. Monta Ellis. All have had big nights. But Williams and Billups are understandable. They're two of the better point guards in the league. And considering the Thunder followed up games against those two by holding Steve Nash to 11 points, it didn't seem like opposing point guards were a problem at that point. The last two — Ellis and Miller — are more troubling. They illustrate again that struggling defense.
Baldwin: Westbrook has had difficulty keeping opposing point guards in front of him. When teams get into the lane it sets up easy buckets in the paint and wide-open 3-pointers on kickout passes.
Sherman: Can't pin this on Westbrook alone. Since the NBA prohibited handchecking out on the floor, even the best perimeter defenders get beat. Help defense from guys off the ball hasn't been anywhere as energetic and consistent as it was in March.
If Marcus Camby can get 30 points and 13 rebounds on OKC, what will Gasol do?
Tramel: The Thunder has to hope that Gasol is disinterested. I don't know why he would be, but that has to be the hope. Gasol is the second-best center in the NBA and doesn't even play center for the Lakers.
Carlson: I suspect he'll have some big numbers against the Thunder, but then, I thought that before Monday's game against Camby and Portland. Pau Gasol is one of the top centers in the league, and in the playoffs, I expect him to be a force. The Thunder will have to use a variety of guys on him, switching from Nenad Krstic to Serge Ibaka to Nick Collison. Give him different looks. Keep a fresh guy on him. It won't stop him, but it might slow him down a bit.
Baldwin: This has been the Thunder's Achilles heel the past two seasons. Krstic, at times, does a decent job, and didn't play. But Krstic isn't exactly a defensive stopper in the paint. It's the primary reason it would be shocking to see the Thunder defeat the Lakers in a series.
Sherman: Remember the dying days of the Chicago Bulls dynasty? Phil Jackson always had three postmen and 18 fouls to inflict on anyone daring to drive on the Bulls, but Jerry Krause refused to resign Joe Klein, leaving the Bulls one postman and six fouls short. And it might have cost them that last title if Michael Jordan hadn't, ahem, pushed off Bryon Russell. If Krstic isn't available or is hampered at all, you'll see some 30-and-15 nights from Gasol.
What's the more worrisome trend, the Thunder's late-game defense or inability to get good shots late in games?
Tramel: The Thunder's late-game problem is more prevalent on offense. The Thunder has turned into putty in the last minute. Two inbounds disasters vs. Golden State. Durant throwing the ball to the ref vs. Portland. Pitiful. That's not a lack of execution. That's a total choke.
Carlson: Defense, defense, defense. If you're always taking the ball out of the basket, you can't get any fastbreak points, any transition opportunities. Those are good shots, and they are shots that the Thunder isn't getting because its defense has become non-existent late in games.
Baldwin: Unless the Thunder finds a way to get back to its defensive improvement the first three months it will be difficult to win consistently, either in the playoffs or next season.
Sherman: The late-game offense. Defense is an act of will and effort that the Thunder has and will be willing to commit to. It might take a while before they learn how to get good shots against lockdown defense. Like Sam Presti says, it's a process.