NBA playoffs: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies preview
These teams met in the Western Conference semifinals two years ago, with Oklahoma City winning in seven games, and the core of their rosters haven't changed much. The most significant difference is the absence of Russell Westbrook. The Thunder appeared vulnerable without their All-Star point guard in the first round, pushed to six games by Houston, while Memphis emerged as a fashionable Finals pick. After dropping the first two games to the Clippers, the Grizzlies became the first team ever to take the next four by 10 points or more. They look a lot like the hardscrabble crew that shocked top-seeded San Antonio in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. They didn't have Rudy Gay then, because he was injured, and they don't have him now, because he was traded to Toronto in February. But again Memphis is training its sights on a No. 1 seed.
With every practice, every shoot-around, every game, they will become more adept at playing without Westbrook. They were justifiably in shock when he tore his meniscus against Houston. They had to figure out who was going to handle the ball and initiate the offense. It should have come as no surprise that they lost twice to the Rockets. The Thunder will continue missing Westbrook, but with time, they will learn to compensate. They will miss him a little less. They host the first two games and then get a three-day break before Game 3, like a mini-training camp, before heading to Memphis. Oklahoma City has the best player in the series, Kevin Durant, who has thrived as a play-maker in Westbrook's stead. No one can match the Grizzlies' front line, but Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have a much better chance than Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan did. They will keep games close so Durant can take over in the end.
While Oklahoma City is trying to forge a new identity on the fly, the Grizzlies understand as well as any team in the NBA what works for them: boundless energy, relentless effort, tight-fisted defense, and an inside-out attack featuring Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. When the Thunder had Westbrook, they could sprint past Memphis, but now they are more susceptible to the deliberate pace the Grizzlies prefer. In the first round, the Memphis offense was more prolific than usual, and the Oklahoma City defense more porous. The Grizzlies pureed the Clippers by working the ball into the paint and either finishing at the rim or kicking out for wide-open threes. They will do the same to the Thunder, suddenly as vulnerable on the perimeter as the Clips. The Grizzlies may not keep up their hot shooting, but they will force the Thunder to defend the arc, creating space for Randolph and Gasol.
Mike Conley. He is one of the most underrated point guards in the NBA, partly because the Grizzlies don't ask him to score as much as his peers. His main responsibility is feeding Randolph and Gasol in the post. But Conley repeatedly took Chris Paul off the dribble in the first round and he should enjoy a major mismatch against Oklahoma City, no matter who is guarding him. The Thunder, after struggling to keep Houston's Patrick Beverly out of the lane, may not have an answer for Conley. Once he breaks down a defense, he can find Randolph or Gasol down low, but he is also a clever finisher with an array of floaters and reverse lay-ups.
Grizzlies in 7. This will be a grueling match-up between Durant and the waves of defenders Memphis can throw at him, from the rugged Tony Allen to the rangy Darrell Arthur. Durant will give the Thunder a chance, but in the end, he may not have enough help.