The illustrious J.A. Sherman of Welcome to Loud City was kind enough to take the time to do another Q&A with me as we approach Game 5 of the Grizzlies/Thunder series. Game 4 saw the Grizzlies take a 3–1 series lead, and so far, the Thunder haven’t looked like they’ve figured out how to beat the Grizzlies.
I asked J.A. about some things I’ve noticed over the last four games, and about where the team is at right now. Here we go:
KL: Given the closeness of every game in this series so far, I feel like the Grizzlies would be getting drilled if Westbrook were healthy. I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case–these teams always play close games, and they did when Westbrook was healthy–but it seems like Westbrook’s playmaking would’ve kept the Thunder on top last night, and maybe put them over the edge in Game 3 as well. Agree? Disagree?
J.A.: As much as I’d love to embrace your supposition were Westbrook playing in this series, we really know better, don’t we? These two teams are always going to play close affairs, and I think it is so because they are so profoundly different in the way they go about things. Their differences means that constant adjustments, even small ones, pay huge dividends in terms of how games play out. The truth is, there are solutions for how to deal with Westbrook, and the Grizz know what they are. I think the only way I could concede a major difference in how things have turned out is if Mike Conley was playing every game like he played Game 2. If that was the case, then yes the absence of Westbrook’s offense and defense might have made a difference. Apart from that, I think we’d still be in for plenty of nail-biters.
Here is the difference though - if Westbrook were playing, the Thunder would not likely be trailing in so many 4th quarters. The 3rd quarter is Westbrook time, the game minutes when he exerts his own offense to make sure the Thunder enter the 4th in good position. Without him, take a look at OKC’s 3rd quarter output: 17–23–15–20. As a result, Durant had to burden so much more of the offensive load that by the end of the game, he had nothing left. I mean, how often do you see Durant miss late-game free throws? He missed 2 in Game 3 and another one in Game 4. The burden takes its toll.
All that said, I’d probably knot the series at 2–2 if Westbrook were playing. I’d flip the Game 4 outcome to get there, since by my reasoning OKC would not have lost their entire lead in the 3rd.
Unfortunately for me, that isn’t reality.
KL: Collison usually does a great job defending Zach Randolph in the low post. Why has he been unable to do that without fouling out this year?
J.A.: Post defense against a classic back-to-basket player like Randolph is sort of like a Tango that involves elbows and body blows. When the post guy catches the ball, he’s got his primary move, say for example a jab step. The defender counters, and the offensive player counters the counter. And so it goes. There is a certain rhythm to it, where each guy is trying to both lead in the dance at the same time while not stepping on the other guy’s toes (leading to a foul call). When you watch an offensive post player completely outwork the defender, like Randolph can do as he jabs, pivots, and pump fakes, you realize that he can get to any shot at any spot on the floor that he wants to. However, when the defender can match each motion and then start to dictate where the shot ends up, the offensive player either has to reset, force a bad attempt, or hope for a foul call.
Ok, now I think I totally lost my way in that analogy. What I mean to say is, Collison defends Randolph about as well as anybody in the league does. Take a look at Randolph’s declining percentages when he’s matched up against Collison. Nick knows his way on the blocks. Unfortunately for the Thunder, in this series Nick’s timing is a bit off. He’s pushing when he should pull, leading with his left in stead of his right, reaching in when he should be backing up, and the result is that Collison has picked up 21 fouls in 4 games while fouling out in the last two.
It is doubly frustrating for us because Collison has been the Thunder’s best low post player thus far. If he could stay on the court a bit longer, he would greatly improve the Thunder’s chances to produce offense when Durant is not required to shoot on every possession.
KL: What is it about the Grizzlies’ three guard lineup of Mike Conley, Jerryd Bayless, and Tony Allen (with Randolph and Marc Gasol) that gives the Thunder so many problems? That was the lineup that got the Grizzlies back into Game 4 last night.
J.A.: The Thunder have had trouble dealing with smaller lineups going back to last season. They struggled to deal with the Heat’s "five out" smallball system where essentially everyone not named Lebron was a perimeter player, and the Thunder surprisingly struggled against the Rockets’ guard-oriented line-up. In fact, it was only when Jeremy Lin was sidelined and his minutes were taken by the smaller and quicker Patrick Beverley and Aaron Brooks did the Rockets look like they had finally found a match-up advantage.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Thunder don’t have Westbrook in the game to deal with quick guards like Conley. To be sure, nobody can really stay in front of Conley, but Westbrook is quick enough and strong enough to keep Conley out of the lane while still challenging his outside shot on a consistent basis. That would ordinarily leave Sefolosha to deal with Tony Allen, who is not a dangerous threat on offense. Even Kevin Martin is a good enough defender to not allow his team to be hurt by Allen repeatedly.
Instead, when the Grizzlies go small with Conley and Bayless, the Thunder’s options are not optimal. Reggie Jackson has the length and quickness to give Conley trouble, but if Jackson is occupied there is nobody left to deal with Bayless, who can both shoot the three and drive to the rim. Sefolosha isn’t quite quick enough, Derek Fisher is an antiquated defender, and that’s all the Thunder have to deal with the problem.
Further complicating things, the Thunder’s guards are not great at producing points at the rim in order to take advantage of the smaller Grizzly line-up. Jackson can drive but isn’t great at posting up, Sefolosha is a one dimensional 3-point shooter, and Derek Fisher is an antiquated offensive player.
The crown jewel though is that the small lineup allows Tony Allen to stay on Kevin Durant full time and never get outworked. Because the OKC perimeter players have been so sporadic, Durant has to come out high on way too many occasions just to catch the ball. Once he’s out high with Allen, it’s a neutral match-up. Durant’s advantage over the smaller Allen can only manifest if they’re closer to the rim, but the the lack of a threat on the Thunder perimeter means that Memphis’ little guys can stay with their men and never give up easy points, and Allen can hang with Durant on the perimeter all day.
In the end, the line-up first challenges the Thunder defense, but then really manipulates the Thunder offense as well. Fortunately for the Thunder, I’m sure that we’ll never see it out of the Grizzlies again, right?
Riiight. Big thanks to J.A. Sherman for participating. WTLC has been killing it all playoffs with Thunder coverage, so be sure to check them out.