The second round series between the Grizzlies and Thunder has already been a tough one. Both games were close, but the Grizzlies were able to steal a win on the road in Oklahoma City to even the series at 1–1 coming back home to Memphis for tomorrow night’s Game 3.
There are a lot of things to talk about in this series. Whether it’s Kevin Durant’s brilliance despite the absence of Russell Westbrook, the emergence of Mike Conley, the barfight that is the Nick Collison/Zach Randolph matchup, or something else, there are plots and subplots and subsubplots at work here. First J.A. Sherman of Welcome to Loud City asked me three questions, and now it’s my turn.
KL: Obviously, this is not the same team without Russell Westbrook. Has it surprised you how well the Thunder have (has?) played against the Grizzlies despite his absence?
JAS: I’m going to try not to equivocate too much here, but…yes and no.
I think that it IS surprising that the Thunder have performed well because their entire team ethos was built around two personalities: Kevin Durant and his effortless ability to scale his game to whatever is needed, and Westbrook’s "Sir Lancelot charging the castle and who cares if a couple brides maids get in the way" approach. Both are maniacal basketball junkies, but Westbrook’s tends to manifest in a way that really enables the Thunder to take on his predatory personality. You’re familiar with parkour, right? Westbrook is the exact opposite of that. The result is that the Thunder’s team approach is much closer in alignment to the Heat’s - they can wipe out other teams who are not ready mentally and physically. As evidence of this, the Thunder finished the regular season with a remarkable 9.4 points per game differential. This fact is in part because the Thunder’s first line of attack can really put the fear in defenses, and your man Mike Conley is no exception. Check out Conley’s drop in production when he has to go against Westbrook. More than anything, THAT is what the Thunder have lost. Points can be replaced, assists can be reallocated, but there really is no substitute for the intensity that Westbrook brings to any game that he’s in.
However, I think that it is NOT surprising because Westbrook’s fingerprint is still on the team, despite the fact that he’s watching in the stands. OKC is still about fanatical practice habits, a resolute belief in themselves, and their coach’s willingness to let them be free to adapt to the moment at hand. Westbrook’s production is by the wayside, but the Thunder still know how to focus on defense, correct their mistakes, and follow Durant’s leadership.
Here is the key facet anyway - when it comes to playing the Grizzlies, production really doesn’t matter that much, right? Beating Memphis isn’t about shooting percentages or assist ratios, but a collective willingness to concentrate for a full 48 minutes and sweat the details. Memphis is great at winning games in the margins; that’s why no Thunder lead over them is safe until the horn sounds. It is what will make the rest of this series as intense and competitive as the first 2.
KL: Do you feel like it’s a good thing or a bad thing for Reggie Jackson to be playing these kinds of minutes in the playoffs? (I’m not going to make a Mr. October joke.)
JAS: Thanks for not making a baseball joke on an NBA site, Kevin. Actually, Jackson’s nickname of choice (well, his teammates’ choice) is "Better Basketball," because at one time Jackson appeared in the NBA instructional video, "Better Basketball."
A year ago, when Jackson was a rookie, he was expected to get very little playing time until Eric Maynor was lost for the season, forcing Jackson into the reserve PG spot. Jackson ran hot or cold but mostly looked lost, so OKC brought in Old Man Fisher to play backup throughout the playoffs. Results were mixed, but Jackson really wasn’t ready for the moment.
Fast forward to this post-season, and it is clear that Jackson’s time working with two of the best players on the planet has had some positive impact on his confidence. He has stepped into the Westbrook role seamlessly, allowing his own game to come to him when the opportunity arises. His game is still rough around the edges when he moves out past about 18 feet, but Jackson is very good at beating his man off the dribble and finishing at the rim. Most importantly, he doesn’t look rattled in the moment. He is unafraid to take the big shots (like the 3-pointer he took with the game on the line at the end of Game 2) and when openings appear, Jackson does not hesitate.
The big drawback though is that it is clear that Memphis does not fear Jackson the way they do Westbrook, and this has given the Grizz freedom to trap Durant 30 feet away from the rim without fear that someone is going to know how to get into open space and make the defense pay. Jackson does not yet have that kind of chemistry with Durant.
Lastly, I am concerned about Jackson’s ability to deal with the Grizzlies’ perimeter defensive pressure. We know that Memphis can turn Durant into a high-turnover player, so even more pressure falls on young Mr. Jackson to prevent Memphis from completely locking up the Thunder offense. In game 1 the Thunder protected the ball well, but one of the turning points in game 2 was in the way Memphis forced the Thunder into 21 turnovers, 8 of which can be attributed to Jackson and Durant.
KL: Kendrick Perkins. Discuss.
JAS: He’s quite the Rorschach Test, isn’t he?
Here is the thing. Perkins has value. Against Memphis, he has a LOT of value. He works well defensively with Sefolosha, Ibaka, and Collison, and that mix is imperative to slowing down Memphis’ interior offensive game. He is going to struggle a bit when Gasol comes out past 18 feet, but for the most part, Perkins is going to be an asset defensively.
The area where Perkins has really underperformed is on the offensive end. To be sure, Perkins will never be confused with Hakeem Olajuwon, but he does have some basic skill sets. He is a very good passer out of the high post, he screens his man in a thorough fashion, and he knows how to time his rolls to the rim. However, Perkins has played really poorly on the offensive end in these playoffs. Perhaps it is because he has seen his minutes wildly fluctuate in the playoffs (he was almost useless vs the Rockets), but every aspect of Perk’s timing has been off. He was at his worst last round, when in game 4 he somehow managed in 9 minutes of play to commit 4 fouls and 4 turnovers.
We’re going to see plenty more of Perkins, to be sure. The Thunder want him on that wall…they NEED him on that wall. However, the Thunder also need some competent offense any place they can get it, and I’m kind of hoping I don’t see a whole lot more of the Kendrick Perkins YOLO pose.
Big thanks to J.A. Sherman for taking the time to chat with me. Be sure and head over to Welcome to Loud City for great Thunder coverage (and also for great Photoshop work).