Scott Brooks needed little time pinpointing the single most important thing his team needs to do tonight to beat the Los Angeles Lakers.
“There are so many things,” Brooks said. “But if you pick one, we're going to have to do a good job of keeping them out of the paint.”
On paper, that's a tall task. Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic are no match for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. But by committee, the Thunder has a real chance. And there is a strategy that could help the Thunder find success.
Smart and timely hacks might just make up for the Thunder's huge hole in the middle — not just tonight but also in a potential playoff rematch with the defending champs.
On any given night, the Thunder has 18 hard fouls to hand out from the center position. Krstic, Nick Collison and Byron Mullens are the current trio that is consistently on the active list. And someday, rookie center Cole Aldrich might join that group. But the Thunder also has an additional 12 fouls to fall back on from forwards Green and Serge Ibaka.
“It's important to use those fouls,” said Brooks. “But only use them as a last resort. That can't be your game plan. But if it helps you put them on the free throw line for two shots instead of a dunk, you have to do it. And our guys are understanding that it's really important to protect that basket.”
It turns into a numbers game.
The Lakers rank ninth in field-goal percentage at 46.7 percent. Gasol is currently at 51.5 percent. Bynum is converting 55.5 percent. Reserve forward Lamar Odom is connecting on 56.8 percent.
Those percentages skyrocket as the Lakers' front line gets closer to the rim. There, Gasol is shooting 69.5 percent, Odom is shooting 73.2 percent and Bynum is shooting 75.8 percent.
But at the foul line, Gasol is the only quality shooter, with an 82 percent conversion rate this season. Odom is making just 65 percent of his foul shots, and Bynum is converting only 60 percent.
The Thunder utilized the same strategy Thursday against Orlando center Dwight Howard. Only it backfired. Howard, a 58.9 percent foul shooter, made 17 of 20 free throws, tying a career-high in made free throws.
But the Thunder, particularly in last year's playoffs, has had some success against the Lakers' front line.
In the regular season a year ago, the Lakers shot 45.7 percent and 49.2 percent on 2-pointers. L.A. also averaged 1.21 points per shot in the regular season.
Against the Thunder in the playoffs, the Lakers shot 44.2 percent and 48.3 percent on 2-pointers. And the Lakers' average points per shot dipped to 1.17.
“It's a difficult matchup, but we don't feel like we have to do anything totally different,” said Collison. “We'll try to guard them and make them score over us. They're going to get buckets. They do have a lot of size and good inside players. But we're not just going to throw our defensive scheme out the window. We're going to try to play well against them and try to win the game.”