Less than 48 hours after the Grizzlies survived a very physical battle with the Los Angeles Clippers, they advance to the second round of the playoffs to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Without Russell Westbrook, most Grizzly fans are more excited to see the Thunder than I am to see a Nasim Pedrad sketch on SNL or the little redheaded girl every time I walk into the forum. While the Thunder are significantly more beatable without Westbrook, this series will be just as difficult to win as the last was.
Who are they?
If you had asked me that question two weeks ago, the answer would have been easy. They're the high-scoring tandem of Westbrook and Durant that will score lots of easy transition buckets, hit a lot of outside shots, and score 100 points with ease. Now? I'm not sure they know who they are just yet. A Kevin Durant, who will be evolving on the go, will lead them. The efficiency driven, team player that we've all come to know and love will have to become the selfish, 25+ shots a game player and demand the ball at all times when he's on the court. From there, they'll have to find someone, whether it's Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin, Derek Fisher, or Hasheem Thabeet to pick up the scoring void left by Westbrook's absence. On defense, they're anchored by the shot-blocking prowess of Serge Ibaka and the warm, angry body of Kendrick Perkins. The two of them will make it difficult for Randolph and Gasol to score in the paint or for Conley to attack the basket. At the point, Reggie Jackson is filling in, quite admirable, for Westbrook, and the Ghost of Derek Fisher is giving them solid minutes off the bench.
In the regular season, these two teams met three times. The first game, Memphis beat them on their home court by double digits. The second game, The Thunder pretty well dominated the Grizzlies in the first game since the Rudy Gay trade. In the third game, Memphis won on a buzzer-beating tip in and Marc Gasol swore in his postgame interview. Neither of these games can really give us an adequate expectation of what to expect because things were so different each time they played. The first game was in the middle of the Grizzlies ridiculously hot start to the season. The second game was the first game after Rudy's trade, when Memphis was nowhere near figuring out how to play without him or how to adjust their attitudes like professionals. The third game, which probably would have been the most accurate depiction of the series, was played with Russell Westbrook, who of course will not be playing this series. Even still, its nice to know that Memphis had the edge in the regular season, regardless of whether or not that will translate to the postseason.
Ready to Erupt
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka wasn't very good in the opening round against Houston. He wasn't bad, but he wasn't "We chose this guy over James Harden" good. There will be no secret to what Memphis will try to do this series, and that's pound the ball inside. Ibaka will need to step his game up and defend the paint, keep Gasol and Randolph in check, and clean up the glass.
Mike Conley: Without the stronger, more physical Westbrook to guard him, Conley will mainly see Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher in front of him. For a guy that averaged 17 points and 8 assists a game, with only 1 turnover, against a very talented group of Clipper's guards, he's got to be salivating just thinking of this series. The world took notice of Mike Conley during the opening round series, and many NBA analyst were gushing about how underrated he was. You've got their attention, now reel them in.
Thabo Sefolosha: Thabo is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, but without Rudy Gay in the game, I'm curious as to who exactly he's going to guard. Do you waste him on Tony Allen? Do you stick him on Prince, leaving Durant on someone much, much smaller? Is it possible to play him on Conley the majority of the game? It really is an interesting dilemma. It's one thing to be a great perimeter defender, but when the opposing team doesn't have a perimeter guy for you to guard, what exactly are you supposed to do? It'll be interesting to see what Scott Brooks decides to do with him, especially considering Omer Asik doesn't play for the Grizzlies.
Darrell Arthur/Ed Davis: The three Thunder bench bigs are Nick Collison, Hasheem Thabeet, and Daniel Orton (who incase you are wondering, I looked it up, and he is not a wrestler). Thabeet and Orton combined for 5 total minutes in the first round, and Orton rarely even dressed out. There will be some time when both Ibaka and Perkins are on the bench, and both Davis and DA will have favorable matchups. If they can stay out of foul trouble, make open looks, and most importantly, not piss Lionel Hollins off, they could both be primed for a nice series off the bench.
Match-ups to Watch
Zach Randolph vs. Nick Collison:
The 2013 playoffs have seen the return of ZBo to the form of the immovable object that scored at will in the post and cleaned the glass like a madman with an obsessive compulsive disorder. The big fella tore through Blake Griffin, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, DeAndre Jordan, Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf in the first round against the Clippers and he looked like the guy who put Memphis on the map and on his back in 2011. When Zach is playing the way he's played in the first round, he's tough to slow down, much less stop. But everyone has their weaknesses. Superman has Kryptonite, Sarah Jessica Parker has her face, and Zach Randolph has Nick Collison. Collison can boast about how he's one of the few guys in the league who is less athletic and can't jump as high as Randolph, but whenever these two are matched up together, Collison doesn't just get the better of ZBo, he shuts him down. Nick Collison owns Zach Randolph. Nick Collison owns somebody! With Collison on the bench, Randolph is a +23 in 71 minutes.
When Collison is in the game, Randolph is a Daye-esque -32 in just 44 minutes! Stopping Kevin Durant and not allowing anyone else on the Thunder to Alex Smith us will be huge in winning the series, but I firmly believe this matchup will decide the series. Will ZBo continue to take Memphis to new and glorious places, or will Nick Collison go down in history as the biggest nobody we ever hated?
Tayshaun Prince vs. Kevin Durant:
In past meetings with the Thunder, Memphis relied heavily on Rudy Gay going toe-to-toe with Durant, trying to match his scoring while defending him on the other end. This current Grizzly team will take a completely different approach. Prince's job with Memphis is to provide decent floor spacing, and run the offense a few possessions throughout the game. Prince will still be asked to guard Durant though. In the two games against Detroit this year when Prince still played for them, Durant wasn't as otherworldly as he normally is. In the first game, he got 26 points, but did it on 8-22 shooting (10-10 from the line). In the lone game in Memphis where Prince was lined up against him, he dropped 32, but it took him 28 shots to get there. He's also 1-6 from beyond the arc in those games. When Tayshaun Prince is his primary defender, Durant is shooting 42% from the floor, which isn't terrible, but it isn't the typical Kevin Durant type of performance. The only problem is, Tayshaun Prince won't be guarding the same Kevin Durant. With no Westbrook, and question marks about who will step up to consistently fill the void he left behind, Durant is going to need to score by the boatloads. That means heavier minutes, more shots, and indubitably more free throw attempts. Will Prince be able to slow down Durant enough to keep him from scoring efficiently? If he can, it will go a long way in Memphis winning this series.
Keyon Dooling vs. Derek Fisher
Just kidding. But isn't it crazy that Keyon Dooling and Derek Fisher are going to have huge roles in determining one of the teams in the Western Conference Finals, in 2013?!
Kevin Martin vs. Quincy Pondexter
Much noise has been made about Martin and the scoring role he plays for the Thunder. While Martin provided a nice scoring option off the bench in the regular season, in the first round against Houston, he's looked less like James Harden from last year's playoffs and more like James Harden from last year's Finals. Memphis fans know all too well about Martin's ability to get hot and beat a team. When he was a member of the Rockets and in a starting role, the Grizzlies were able to throw Tony Allen at him to ‘shut his water off.' Now that he's coming off the bench in OKC, he likely won't see Tony Allen on him until the final minutes of games. The guy that Memphis will ask to guard him the majority of the time is Quincy Pondexter. In spurts throughout his stint with the Grizzlies, Q has successfully guarded Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. He isn't a world-class defender, but in small minutes, he can do an adequate job on very talented offensive players. Martin loves to shoot the long ball, but more than that, he loves to pump-fake, drive to the basket, and draw contact. Quincy will need to do a good job closing out on the perimeter, and a better job of not biting on the fake and putting Martin on the line, where he is a mortal lock. I pegged Pondexter as the X-Factor against the Clippers for his offense, but his ability to defend Kevin Martin, and specifically defend him without fouling, is the X-factor in winning this series. If he can help keep Martin around 12 points a game, and help keep him from getting those points at the free throw line, Oklahoma City's offense is in trouble. If he can't, and Martin scores 20+ a game, Memphis will not win the series.
Tipoff for Game 1 is tomorrow at noon, and there will be a watch party at the Forum starting at 11:30. These are truly exciting times for Memphis basketball. Chat it up, boys and girls, and Go Grizz!