Keeping Score

NBA Playoffs: Why Lakers-Thunder Is the Series To Watch

Kobe vs. Kevin, World Peace-James Harden Rematch: OKC-LA Has It All

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Mark J. Terrill / AP

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, right, puts up a shot as Oklahoma City Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, March 29, 2012, in Los Angeles.

We know the Celtics and 76ers have the rivalry, and Boston’s 92-91 Game 1 win over Philly was a compelling opener to their second-round series in the NBA playoffs. Although the Indiana Pacers lost Game 1 of their second-round series against Miami, Indy has the depth to put a scare into the Heat. And it’s always nice to have the semblance of Cinderella story — the Los Angeles Clippers made the second round! — in the playoffs.

Those series enjoy nice storylines. But if we were forced to watch just one conference semifinal in this year’s playoffs, we know what we’d pick in a heartbeat: Oklahoma City Thunder-Los Angeles Lakers, which tips off on Monday. Here are three reasons why the Thunder-Lakers tilt is worth watching:

1. Kobe vs. Kevin: The NBA’s top two scorers probably won’t be guarding each other, although Durant defended Bryant for 10 or 11 possessions in the fourth quarter of LA’s 114-106 overtime victory on April 22 (Bryant finished 2 for 10 in the fourth, and Durant blocked one of Bryant’s shots). But they’ll still go shot-for-shot in this series. Durant is facing more pressure. The Thunder are the higher-seeded team, and this is clearly Durant’s time to shine. Bryant is awesome but aging, and he has to work harder for his points. Durant should have fresh legs. The Thunder swept the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, and Oklahoma City will have enjoyed nine days off before the start of this series. Bryant and the Lakers just concluded a grueling seven-game opening-round series against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday. Advantage: Durant.

(MORE: Profile: Inside The Mind of Kevin Durant)

2. Harden vs. Metta. OK, Metta World Peace’s elbow to the head of Thunder guard James Harden on April 22, which earned World Peace a suspension for the first six games of the playoffs and Harden a mild concussion, didn’t impact Harden’s game, as many had feared. Harden was terrific against the Mavericks, scoring 29 points in OKC’s series-clinching Game 4 win. Still, Oklahoma City won’t be welcoming World Peace. Expect Metta to be be mercilessly booed in OKC and for the refs to quickly blow the whistle if the former Ron Artest gets too physical, especially against Harden. And if World Peace dials back the aggression, the Thunder’s big three — Durant, Harden, and explosive point guard Russell Westbrook — will have an easier time scoring.

(MORE: No World Peace: How Ron Artest (Again) Marred The NBA)

3. Dirty Work Down Low. The beauty of this series, from a basketball perspective, is that there will be battles all over the floor. The perimeter scoring of Durant and Bryant will draw the most attention, but for the Lakers, the play of their interior twin towers, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, may make the difference. The length of Gasol and Bynum overwhelmed the Nuggets in Game 7 in the first round. They seemed to tip in every missed shot down the stretch. But the Thunder have two big men of their own, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, who can neutralize Gasol and Bynum on defense. Ibaka was the NBA’s leading shot blocker this season, averaging 3.65 blocks per game.

So keep your eyes on the post play, the Bryant-Durant acrobatics, and the antics of Metta World Peace. Just keep your eyes on Thunder-Lakers, period: we bet the series won’t let you down.

PHOTOS: What Makes a Great Basketball Picture? A View of the NBA Finals from Sports Illustrated

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