With only a day separating the Memphis Grizzlies from their 8-over-1 first round upset of the San Antonio Spurs and Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, few would have been surprised -- probably pretty understanding, actually -- had the team flown into OKC with tired legs and minds and dropped a collective deuce on the court. What we continue to learn, though, what the Grizzlies continue to reinforce about themselves to us, is that basketball to them is just basketball. It doesn't matter where, or when, or who the opponent is.
In short, the Grizzlies are making something that is on the surface shocking and difficult to comprehend and turning it into another day's work between the lines. Sunday's Game One win on the heels of the San Antonio upset was wholly impressive in that it didn't feel so much impressive as it did logical and unsurprising. Memphis may have that "8th seed" attached to the front of their name, but you wouldn't know it by looking at 'em.
The youth of Oklahoma City -- Memphis by comparison has at least a few more guys who would qualify as NBA veterans -- and the way they feed off of their energetic home crowd was apparent throughout Sunday's game, and after vanquishing the mighty Spurs only two nights before, it wouldn't have broken many Grizzfan's spirits to see the team enter that hostile environment and come up short. But, on another early Sunday afternoon in enemy territory, just as they did in Game One against San Antonio, Memphis somehow controlled the tempo of much of the game. To go into two opposing arenas on Game One and establish themselves like the Grizz did seems akin to someone walking into a bar and the punching the biggest guy in the building. Memphis set the precedent, they again made the rules when they really have no right to.
Of course with the Grizzlies, it begins with Zach Randolph -- who is soaring to new heights and a more revered reputation with each game -- and Marc Gasol, the smooth compliment to Randolph's ends-justify-the-means style of scoring. They were to be in for a tougher check this series with Oklahoma City's Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nazr Mohammed knocking them around in the paint. In Game One, two things stood out: Both Gasol and Randolph can pull their defender out farther than they want to go with their mid-range shooting, and the Thunder's bigs just can't keep up scoring-wise. The Thunder trio forms a sturdy front-line of rim-protectors, to be sure, but if Zach and Marc can manage to avoid foul trouble, the collective scoring options between the two are far superior.
And when you talk Thunder you must begin with Kevin Durant, and shortly thereafter Russell Westbrook. For Durant, Tony Allen was put on the Earth especially to make things hell for him. I'm pretty sure Durant can't be stopped, but with Allen, Shane Battier, and guys like Sam Young tagging in and out, he should not have an easy go of it, which is about par for the course.
Westbrook will provide a real barometer for this series. His mindset is consistent in that he attacks aggressively at all times; if Good Westbrook shows up, his bigger, stronger frame in comparison to Mike Conley will be tough to keep out of the lane and off the charity stripe. Attacking the Grizzlies' interior is, and I don't feel as though this is a huge secret, a pretty good idea for any opponent. However, if Bad Westbrook is in play, and he's jacking transition threes, flying out-of-control into the lane and throwing the ball away, the Grizzlies could have a smorgasbord of transition opportunities, which makes them all the more difficult to deal with.
The point here is -- and Game One only served to drive this home -- that the Grizzlies again appear to line up against their opponents quite well. Make no mistake, the Thunder provide plenty of problems with just Durant and Westbrook alone, it's just that Memphis, with their turnover-and-perimeter-oriented defense, are not outmatched by any means.
Game Two is tonight, and the Grizzlies again have a chance to go up 2-0 before heading home to the Grindhouse. Yeah, maybe it shouldn't really make this much sense, but a seed is just a number, and basketball is all about the match-ups. So far, the Grizzlies are this postseason's prime example.
For more on the Thunder, see Welcome To Loud City.