Thunderclouds Looming Over LA Lakers' Title Hopes?

Kevin LiszkaContributor IApril 14, 2010

BOSTON - MARCH 31:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrates the win over the Boston Celtics on March 31, 2010 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Boston Celtics 109-104. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The other night, at least one thing in the wild West was cleared up.

With their loss to Portland, the Thunder will now play the Lakers in the No. 1-No. 8 matchup in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

Most are predicting the Lakers to win this series fairly easy en route to their third straight conference championship, but am I really that crazy for entertaining thoughts of an upset here?

Kevin Durant, if not already there, is rising into that upper echelon of elite players in just his third year in the league.

With Lebron resting over these last few games to close out the season, he was assured the league scoring title (he is far and away the youngest player to win this award), and even garnered (slight) MVP consideration.

He's evolved into one of those guys that you expect to drop 30 per game and quite frankly I believe that, at least on the offensive end, he is a player that can go toe-to-toe with even a healthy Kobe Bryant come playoff time.

Perhaps the Lakers biggest worry, though, should not be Durant but rather the Thunder's point guard Russell Westbrook.

It's no secret that post-break Derek Fisher has hit the wall at age 35, beginning to finally show some signs of age. If there's been a weakness on this Lakers squad it has been defending against the point.

Now enter in the speedy, athletic Westbrook, basically everything Fisher hasn't been for the Lakers, who comes in averaging 16.2 ppg and eight assists including an average of 22 points and 9.5 assists in the last two meetings between the teams.

Combine this all and it seems that there could be a a tremendous mismatch that the Thunder could look to exploit. Off the bench at the shooting guard spot James Harden hasn't looked all that shabby either in his platoon with the defensive-minded Thabo Sefolosha who matches up about as well as anybody could hope on Kobe.

The Lakers won the season series 3-1, but don't let that stat fool you as two of those games were decided by a mere three points. In both of those close losses, the Thunder succumbed to fantastic performances by Kobe, who won one of those games on a jumper in the final minute of overtime and another behind a miraculous 40-point effort. With a little better fortune the Thunder could have easily split the series, if not had it go 3-1 the other way.

Now there is no overlooking some of the inexplicable losses the Thunder have suffered, but for every 121-101 loss to the Pacers there's a 102-74 win against Orlando or 91-75 win over these same Lakers just two weeks ago.

I'd chalk up this volatility to the overall youth of their team with an average age of just 25.1, and half their roster under 23. Much like the rival Celtics in their previous two first round battles with the Hawks and Bulls respectively, the defending champs have the supreme experience edge over their young upstart foes. However, it is not as if the defending champs edge there was in doubt.

Another place where, at least on paper, the Lakers should have an advantage is in the frontcourt with their twin towers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, although the recent play of both bigs has been discouraging.

Lakers fans will be the first to tell you that Gasol's been playing soft of late and that Andrew Bynum's cranky legs have been just plain soft. Bynum is expected to be back by Game One of the series, but will he be able to shake off the rust that has to have accumulated and that has plagued him in the past?

Even if they continue on with their mediocre play, I still think that this duo has enough talent to outplay the Thunder frontcourt on just pure size and skill. That said, they can't afford to sleep on Jeff Green and their physical seven-footer Nenad Krstic as they headline an underrated unit that overall ranks fourth in the league in rebounding.

In the end, I think that the Lakers will pull this series out.

I think the Thunder's lack of depth in the frontcourt combined with their playoff inexperience will be their undoing, but not after one of those epic first round struggles, not unlike those two aforementioned Celtic series.

Head coach Phil Jackson has even acknowledged the fact that the Thunder are a quick, athletic, and scrappy team that definitely will pose some matchup problems for the Lakers this year, and as currently assembled will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Still, despite my hatred of him it's too damn hard to bet against Kobe Bryant in the NBA playoffs and the Lakers are the champs for a reason.

As a fan of the Cavs, I'd love to see one of the top contenders go out, but as a fan of the game, that potential Kobe-Lebron Finals has me salivating and I'm sure I'm not alone in that sentiment.

While there might only be a small chance of precipitation in the forecast, don't count out the possibility that the Thunder could end up raining on the Lakers parade.