Here are three quick questions with J.A. Sherman, his insights will give you a better perspective on the Thunder.
1. What scares you most in this upcoming series against the Grizzlies?
I think that, apart from all of the X's and O's, the player breakdown, and the statistical comparisons, the thing that scares me the most about the Grizzlies is that they play with an air of confidence that says they really don't care one way or another who is "better on paper." Much will be made of the lack of Kendrick Perkins
in the lin-up during the regular season. While Having Perkins will certainly help the Thunder, what people are forgetting is that, while the Thunder were far from complete as they are today, the Thunder of those early months was still pretty good. They were "better on paper" than the Grizzlies. The Thunder had superior talent at at least three positions as well as a better bench. The Grizzlies were short-handed. And yet, despite these discrepancies, the Grizzlies still competed and won.
What I think it boils down to is, the Grizzlies, despite their shortcomings, do not seem to play from a place of fear. Rather, because of Tony Allen
and Zach Randolph
, they play with a bravado and confidence that does not get shaken, no matter what the odds. Zach Randolph the player is a worthy combatant; he poses all sorts of match-up issues that the Thunder have to contend with. Tony Allen is strong, athletic, and has proven to be a a better clutch-shooter than the Celtics
ever extracted from him. And yet, those facets of their games pale in comparison (in my mind anyway) to the mental advantage the Grizz gain when they are pressing the air out of their opponent's lungs and the opponent has no idea why.
One of the great confidence-shakers in sports is the self-doubt that arises when I team starts to wonder, "How is this team that we're better than still hanging around?" When a team wonders that question, that is when the Grizzlies make their move.
2. Can you say that, given the matchup, Russell Westbrook is the key to winning this series for the Thunder?
I may surprise you here, but I'd probably say "no" to this question. However, the answer is really split into two components. If you watched any of the OKC-Nuggets
series, you will likely have seen what we sometimes call the "good" Russ and the "bad" Russ.
The Good Russell Westbrook - When Westbrook is on his game, he has a very good balance between being a pass-first point guard and a guy who can take over an offense. He'll start off the game slow, looking for his teammates, and often you'll see him tally 6-8 assists in the first half alone. Biding his time, Westbrook may have the occasional explosive play in the first half, but for the most part he is content to move with the flow of the offense. Later in the game, usually in the 3rd and sometimes in the 4th, Westbrook will begin to assert himself offensively and go into attack mode. It is difficult to counter him at this point because he has already done so much to make the rest of the Thunder offense effective. When Westbrook plays in this manner, I don't think there is a team in the league that can check him, and he makes the Thunder all but unbeatable.
The Bad Russell Westbrook - When Westbrook struggles, it is almost always because he has allowed his emotions to take himself out of the game. He is a complex bottle of emotion and energy, and when that bottle gets shaken up too much, you're never sure where the contents will end up. I'm sure that you've read plenty on Westbrook's Game Four struggles, and that is probably Westbrook at his worst - when he takes the team on himself when he doesn't need to and plays beyond his ability to control himself. However, the thing the Grizzlies need to be aware of is that all is not lost (or found) when Westbrook struggles like this. It becomes incumbent on the coaching staff to recognize it and get Westbrook out of the game to give him time to calm down. The Thunder have a back-up plan - they have a tremendous bench player in point guard Eric Maynor
, and he is the perfect antidote to Westbrook. He runs the offense in a much more deliberate and patient manner than Westbrook, and the team rarely is set back because he's on the court. That said, Maynor's upside is more limited, and he is more prone to be a risk on defense.
Of course, if Westbrook really isn't the key to the Thunder winning the series, then who is? That man would be Serge Ibaka
. He is going to have more pressure on him than ever before. Not only is Ibaka going to have to switch back and forth between guarding Marc Gasol
and Randolph, he is also going to have to provide some additional offense when the Grizzlies are locking down on Durant. Against the Spurs
, once Memphis figured out what to do with Duncan, there was not much of a scoring option left on the inside. While the Thunder are much more guard and perimeter oriented, the problem remains the same. You have to have a 3rd scorer who can step up, and Ibaka is going to be the best candidate for that role.
3. Are you confident, after watching Tim Duncan and the Spurs frontline struggle against the Memphis bigs, that Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka can counter the Memphis frontline?
Since Perkins will most likely start out on Gasol, that leaves Serge Ibaka on Randolph. I can't say I'm in love with that match-up. Ibaka is long, lithe, strong, and quick. Those are tremendous attributes if Ibaka is defending someone like Pau Gasol. However, against a player like Randolph, I see Ibaka struggling to keep his defensive position. I'm very concerned about foul trouble. Fortunately for the Thunder, they have Nick Collison
and Nazr Mohammed
sitting on the bench ready to enter the fray. However, Randolph seems to feast off of players who start to pile up their fouls against him.
So what will the Thunder do against Randolph? OKC is not known for double-teaming, and they don't want to start leaving guys like Mike Conley
and Tony Allen free to shoot or drive to the rim, so I'm guessing OKC will continue to play Randolph straight up. While this technique might have limited appeal in the regular season, the mis-match is magnified in the playoffs. If Randolph starts fouling guys out, I think Brooks is going to have to get creative in a way we haven't seen before this season.