Improved Thunder hope to flip script on Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers are right where they were expected to be — at the top of the Western Conference standings.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are where very few outside of their locker room expected them to be, in the thick of the playoff race.

Saturday night in Oklahoma City, the two teams will meet under much different circumstances than they did earlier this season.

When the two teams met in back-to-back games on Nov. 19 and Nov. 22, the Lakers were in the midst of a white-hot 17-2 start in which they created separation in the West.

Los Angeles won both games, though neither was decided by more than five points.

After losing the second of those games to the Lakers on Nov. 22, the Thunder were 5-10 and seemed destined to sink well out of the playoff race.

After that, though, Oklahoma City started turning things around.

Since, the Thunder are 17-6 with the second-best record in the NBA since Thanksgiving.

In those two earlier games between the teams, Lakers star big man Anthony Davis played a major role, averaging 33.5 points and 9.0 rebounds.

But Davis might not play Saturday night.

He missed Friday’s game in Dallas after he suffered a bruised buttocks in Tuesday’s win over the New York Knicks.

The Lakers didn’t much look like they missed Davis on Friday as they scored 45 points in the first quarter to roll to a 129-114 win over the Mavericks, and Kyle Kuzma, starting in Davis’ spot, scored a season-high 26 points.

«We want to be a hit-first kind of attack,» Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. «The pace that we’ve been playing with the last couple games showed up in that first half.»

In that game, LeBron James passed Michael Jordan for fourth place in made field goals in NBA history.

Davis did join the Lakers on the two-game road trip.

While the second game of a back-to-back against a team with at least a day’s rest is often a recipe for defeat, the Lakers are 4-0 this season on the second night of a back-to-back.

A big part of the Thunder’s recent success has been the play of Danilo Gallinari, who is coming off a 23-point, 11-rebound performance in Thursday’s win over the Houston Rockets.

«Gallo’s like a little quiet assassin,» Thunder point guard Chris Paul said. «When guys switch onto him, that’s a mismatch. Gallo can drive, he can jab and shoot.»

While Davis might miss Saturday’s game, the Thunder will be without one of their big men, though his absence isn’t nearly as costly as when the Lakers are missing their All-Star.

Backup center Nerlens Noel will miss his fourth consecutive game after sustaining a sprained left ankle Jan. 4 in Cleveland.

«I don’t have a timetable for him,» Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. «He is getting better. He is improving. There’s been nothing that’s set him back any further than he already was.»

Noel is averaging 7.7 points and 5.1 rebounds in 34 games (three starts) this season.

–Field Level Media