Sunday, May 1, 2011

Second Round Preview: Ten Questions and (Attempted) Answers on Grizzlies-Thunder

Posted By on Sun, May 1, 2011 at 12:47 AM

The Grizzlies' second-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder tips off at noon today. With very little time to work through this match-up, a quick, instant-reaction take on how this series may shape up:

1. What does the first-round tell us about these teams?

As impressive as the Grizzlies were in upsetting the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder might have been even more impressive with their five-game dismissal of a surging Denver Nuggets team.

Both the Grizzlies and Thunder come into this series with their "A" game clicking: For the Grizzlies, that means frontcourt duo Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, who combined to average 36 points and 21 rebounds while physically controlling the series. For the Thunder, that means dynamic perimeter duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who combined to average 56 points a game in an uptempo series against the Nuggets.

As with the Spurs series, this will be a battle of "inside" vs. "outside." Inside prevailed for the Grizzlies in the first round, but this time the team faces a younger, more dynamic opponent that seems to be peaking at the right time.

2. How meaningful was the regular-season series?

Not very. The Grizzlies won the season series with the Thunder 3-1, but all the games were in single digits, two featured injured Griz star Rudy Gay, and, most crucially, none of them featured the Thunder's new starting center, former Celtic Kendrick Perkins. The Grizzlies' road win at Oklahoma City, in overtime, was one of the most memorable games of the season, played without both Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, and featured perhaps the greatest performance — on and off the court — of Tony Allen's career:

But it's probably not worth investing much faith in the regular-season results of this match-up.

3. Is Game 1 a scheduled loss for the Grizzlies?

It sure seems that way. Though the Grizzlies were the last team to advance from the first round, they will play in the first game of the second round — roughly 36 hours after an emotional series win against the Spurs. They will do so on the road, with minimal time to adjust to their new opponent, with their season-series experience of limited preparatory value, and with their opponent having an extra two days rest. This is a recipe for a 15+ point loss. If Sunday's game is at all close in the final six minutes, it will be an impressive performance from the Grizzlies.

4. Can the Thunder's bigs defend Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol?

If the Grizzlies are going to have a chance in this series, their inside game is going to have to continue to be effective. Zach Randolph dominated the Thunder in the regular season, averaging 27 points and 13 rebounds. But those numbers are built on three games (31/16, 27/16, 31/14) against a frontline of Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green, both of whom have since been dispatched to Boston.

In the final game of the regular-season series, Randolph faced a Thunder frontline of current starting power forward Serge Ibaka and current backup center Nazr Mohammed. The result was a sub par 17/6.

Now, the Thunder will feature a combo of the athletic Ibaka (10 points, 11 rebounds, and 4.8 blocks per game in the Nuggets series) and tough, proven post defender Kendrick Perkins, with the solid Mohammed and Nick Collison coming off the bench. This is a better corps of frontcourt defenders than the Spurs had.

For the Grizzlies, the best bet is probably to attack Ibaka in the post, where the wide, strong bodies of Randolph and Gasol can perhaps exploit his thinner frame. This will also serve to neutralize Ibaka's strength, which is his weak side shot blocking.

As for Perkins, one factor is that he's only been a 25-minute-a-game player for the Thunder, both in the regular season and against the Nuggets. If that holds, then Randolph and Gasol will get plenty of match-ups against Collison and Mohammed. Those guys are less fearsome, but they won't be as easy to handle as Matt Bonner and Dejuan Blair.

But, if the Thunder bigs are superior to their Spurs counterparts defensively, they are not as good offensively. There's no post scorer here as good as Tim Duncan, mid-range shooter as troubling as Antonio McDyess, or floor-stretcher as dangerous (in theory at least) as Matt Bonner.

This will put a little less pressure on the Grizzlies frontcourt defensively in terms of defending their man, but the bigger problem for Grizzlies bigs is going to be trying to help contain and contest Durant and Westbrook drives while avoiding foul trouble.

5. Can the Grizzlies' perimeter defenders slow down Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant?

The Grizzlies just disrupted the league's second-best regular-season offense. Can they have similar success against the fourth-ranked Thunder?

Even though the Grizzlies boast two of the NBA's best perimeter defenders in Tony Allen and Shane Battier, I'm less optimistic.

The Thunder's go-to scorers — Westbrook and Durant — are bigger and more athletic than their Spurs' counterparts — Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — and even more difficult match-ups as a result.

The Grizzlies did an amazing job taking away the Spurs' offensive calling card — their league-best three-point shooting. Can they be as effective against the Thunder's strength, which is getting to the line?

In the regular season, the Thunder were second in the league in free-throw attempts at 29.3 a game. And they made teams pay: Shooting an NBA-best 82% from the stripe. This is all about Westbrook and Durant, who combined for 16.7 free-throw attempts per game in the regular season and 19.2 in the Nuggets series — more than half of the team total in both instances.

Figuring out how to best juggle rotations and match-ups to combat Durant and Westbrook will be an enormous challenge for Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins and his defensive lieutenant, Dave Joerger.

The obvious match-ups are to have Mike Conley on his point guard counterpart Westbrook and defensive stopper Tony Allen on Durant, and that may well be the most common configuration. But with the longer Shane Battier as an option on Durant now and with Westbrook such a difficult match-up for Conley, I wonder how much we'll see Allen on Westbrook and Battier on Durant simultaneously.

Against the Thunder's starters, you could hide Conley on 6'8" two guard Thabo Sefolosha, who is not much of an offensive threat. But without a high-scoring wing player to worry about, it's likely that Sefolosha gives up even more minutes than usual — especially in the fourth quarters — to the more offensively skilled sixth-man James Harden.

Whatever the Grizzlies do, they're going to have some tough match-ups along the perimeter. At least the Grizzlies' depth will be a help.

Westbrook and Durant dominate the Thunder's offense, accounting for 36.7 of 80.6 field-goal attempts per game in the regular season and pushing the number just past 50% in the Nuggets series. With little scoring punch in the Thunder frontcourt, if the Grizzlies can slow down one of the two, it could make a big impact on the Thunder's effectiveness.

As a matter of strategy — hope? — the best bet might be to try to limit Durant's touches — or at least make him work harder for them — with ball-denial defense, while trying to bait and prod the more volatile Westbrook into bad shots and turnovers.

6. Tony Allen: "Grit Grind" or "Trick or Treat"?

Tony Allen had a career-transforming regular season for the Grizzlies, but he was more erratic in the Spurs series, mixing strong drives and effective passes with possession-killing decisions and bad shots, steal-generating defense with foul-prone defense.

The Grizzlies need Allen to find a better balance between energy and control in this series, where his defense will be badly needed. They need him to be this year's "Grit Grind" Tony rather than the old "Trick or Treat" Tony.

For what it's worth, Allen was fabulous in the regular season against the Thunder, averaging 19 points on 57% shooting with 2.5 steals per game. And he had arguably his two most memorable performances of the season in wins against OKC.

If he can come close to duplicating that performance in this series, it will go a long way towards giving the Grizzlies a chance.

7. How much does it suck that Rudy Gay isn't playing in this series?

A lot. Gay averaged 24-5-4 on 58% shooting in two games against the Thunder this season. And while he's not the defender Allen or Battier is, he certainly matches up athletically with Durant better than any of the Grizzlies' current options. And Gay could do one thing none of the Grizzlies other small forwards are as likely to do: Make Durant work defensively. Maybe next year.

8. Who are the X-Factors?

If one of these teams gets a clear advantage in the match-up between bearded sixth-man shooters — O.J. Mayo and James Harden — it could be very meaningful. Harden has had the better season, but Mayo — shooting 50% from 3, but only 30% from two — has probably been a little better in the playoffs.

With the Grizzlies likely to be at least a little less effective with their post offense this series and with Mike Conley facing such a tough match-up with Westbrook, the Grizzlies need someone else to step up offensively. If Mayo gets hot, he could have a big impact on this series.

But the biggest X-factor in this series could end up being Greivis Vasquez. The Grizzlies' rookie played crucial minutes in the clinching Game 6. With Conley in more danger of foul trouble against Westbrook, Vasquez could well get more minutes in this series. And if he can play well offensively, his minutes could actually be a match-up help for the Grizzlies. With his two-guard size and point-guard game, it would be easier for the Grizzlies to put Vasquez on someone like Harden, freeing the team up to match it's best defenders — Allen and Battier — against the Thunder's best scorers — Westbrook and Durant.

9. Is this series a preview of coming attractions?
Could be. The Western Conference final four definitely has an "old West" vs. "new West" feel about it, with the Lakers-Mavericks series representing the old guard and this Thunder-Grizzlies match-up potentially representing emerging contenders.

The Thunder, barring some unexpected stumble, are already established as the conference's next power team. The Grizzlies, with a strong series here and a good summer (i.e., resigning Marc Gasol) could position themselves as the Thunder's most likely competitor among the younger Western Conference teams.

10. Can the Grizzlies continue their upset streak?

The interior/perimeter contrast here is similar to that in the Spurs series. But the Grizzlies were able to make the Spurs look small, old, and unathletic — and that's not happening here.

And if the Grizzlies are really better than their eighth seed, the same appears to be true of the Thunder.

The Grizzlies need a strong series from Mike Conley — or a surprising one from Vasquez — and need to find a way to disrupt the Thunder's dynamic perimeter attack while maintaining their strong interior play.

Given the quick turnaround and potential for emotional letdown, I sense the Thunder will win Game 1 and fear the Thunder in 5 as a potential result. But this Grizzlies team has been too resilient not to think they'll put up a better fight than that.

Prediction: Thunder in 6. Hopefully I'm just as wrong about that as I was in round one.

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