The Grizzlies and Thunder face off in Game 5 tonight in Oklahoma City. Tip-off is 8:30 p.m. Broadcast is TNT. Five questions whose answers could be key to the outcome:
1. Is the tank empty?: This is setting up as a letdown game for the Grizzlies — coming off a grueling triple-overtime home loss in which Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol played a combined 113 minutes to play on the road against an opponent and fan base sensing a chance to take control of the series.
Then again, the last time we — okay, I — thought the Grizzlies were set up for a tough game — in Game 1 against OKC — they responded with their most convincing buzzer-to-buzzer win of the post-season.
2. Can the Grizzlies counter the Thunder's small-ball lineup?: Oklahoma City's small lineups were a problem for the Grizzlies in Game 4. Kevin Durant's length helped him be effective fronting the post on Zach Randolph and kept the Grizzlies from taking advantage of a potential mismatch. On the other end, the Grizzlies found themselves trying to find somewhere to hide one of their bigs (Zach Randolph on Daequan Cook?) and didn't seem comfortable defensively. OKC is sure to go small again, the thought here is that the Grizzlies should try to stay big and make them pay for it, which may mean being more aggressive and creative about getting Randolph the ball inside.
3. Can Darrell Arthur be a difference maker?: One thing that could help the Grizzlies counter the Thunder's small ball while still staying "big" is getting good minutes from Darrell Arthur, something that hasn't happened in series outside of a short stretch in Game 2.
Arthur has generally been better at home this season, but between Games 3 and 4 in FedExForum, Arthur combined for only 7 points in only 20 minutes. Given the huge workload Gasol and Randolph carried Monday night (and Tuesday morning), the Grizzlies really need a lift from Arthur tonight. If he gets it going, he can punish the Thunder offensively while also providing better defensive coverage for the Grizzlies' frontcourt.
4. Does Tony Allen help more defensively than he hurts offensively?: Allen was huge defensively down the stretch of Game 3 and was brilliant offensively to start Game 4, helping create all of the team's first 14 points. But by the end of the game, Allen's erratic offense was hurting the team and he sat for Shane Battier, who could provide solid if not brilliant defense with more composed offense. And when Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo fouled out and Allen came back in, his faulty shooting and ball-handling was again a problem.
Allen remains the team's best and most versatile defender. When his offense is focused on passing, cutting, and slashing, he's a huge plus for the Grizzlies. But when his offense becomes more about dribbling and shooting, sometimes Lionel Hollins can't have him on the floor.
5. Has Oklahoma City figured it out?: In addition to the problems posed by the Thunder's small lineups, the a couple of Thunder bench players have seemed to be more effective against the Grizzlies than their starting-lineup counterparts, and, unfortunately for the Grizzlies, the Thunder seem to have figured that out.
In the Grizzlies two wins, Thunder center Kendrick Perkins' minutes relative to quicker, more skilled reserve Nick Collison were +14 and +8. In the two Grizzlies losses, Perkins was +7 and even, with both Perkins and Collison playing 35 minutes in Game 4's triple overtime.
The difference has been more stark on the wing, where the Grizzlies, to my eyes, have been much more troubled by the offensive ability of sixth-man James Harden than the defense of specialist starter Thabo Sefolosha. In the Grizzlies two wins, Sefolosha has played more minutes than Harden. When the Thunder has won, Harden has played more, and in Game 4 the difference was huge: 49 minutes for Harden, only 15 for Sefolosha.
When the Thunder has all three perimeter scorers on the floor (Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Harden), the Grizzlies can't match-up defensively.