Saturday, May 4, 2013

Grizzlies-Thunder Series Preview: Ten Takes

Posted By on Sat, May 4, 2013 at 10:34 PM

Zach Randolph vs. Nick Collison could be a key match-up in the series.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Zach Randolph vs. Nick Collison could be a key match-up in the series.
With the barely-a-day break between the end of the first-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers and the start of Sunday's second-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder happening to coincide with a day of solo parenting for me, there wasn't much time to research this Thunder-Grizzlies playoff rematch. (Grizzlies Playoffs: Revenge Tour 2013)

But I did manage to scribble out 10 quick takes on what lies ahead. This time I'm blaming any typos, tortured sentence constructions, or other deficiencies on David Stern:

1. Schedule: Only the first three games have been announced by the league so far:

Game 1: Noon, Sunday, Oklahoma City (ABC)
Game 2: 8:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oklahoma City (TNT)
Game 3: 4 p.m., Saturday, Memphis (ESPN)

2. There's Some History Here: Past results aren't going to be much guarantee of future performance in this series, not with first James Harden, and then Rudy Gay, and now Russell Westbrook all out of the mix. But the Thunder probably figure more prominently in recent Griz lore than any other team. Over the past three seasons, these teams have battled to a 9-9 draw across three season series and a seven-game playoff battle. Four of those 18 games went to overtime and homecourt hasn't been an overwhelming factor, with each team winning several times on the opponent's floor.

The Thunder were witness to Tony Allen's breakout game for the Grizzlies. They were the backdrop to The Birth of Grit and Grind. The postseason series in 2011 included that triple-overtime home heartbreaker. This season's three-game series was highly eventful, from the Gasol/Perkins/Randolph Incident, to the Grizzlies demoralizing-in-the-moment first game after the Rudy Gay trade, to Marc Gasol's overtime tip-in.

We can only hope the next four-to-seven games between these small-market rivals will be as intense and memorable.

3. Grizzlies First Round Notes: The Grizzlies exit their first-round series having settled on a eight-man rotation — starters backed by Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, and Darrell Arthur. Keyon Dooling got spot minutes as a back-up point guard when he was healthy and Ed Davis started out in a similar frontcourt role before falling out of the rotation entirely.

Zach Randolph played his best basketball in two years. Marc Gasol was solid on both ends. Mike Conley continued his ascent. Tony Allen rebounded like a beast and scored efficiently. Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter's shots came and went, but their defense and all-around team play was mostly a plus through.

So, the Grizzlies come into this series with a pretty strong sense of themselves. They generally know who's playing and how and should be pretty confident. The biggest roster questions, outside of specific match-ups, might be whether Ed Davis will get a second chance to work his way back into playing time and whether Dooling's poor play in Game 6 might open the door for rookie Tony Wroten, who played well in a Game 4 cameo.

4. Thunder First Round Notes: The first two games of the Thunder's six-game series with the Rockets won't tell us much. In the four games after Russell Westbrook's injury — which the Thunder split — Kevin Durant carried an even heavier scoring burden than usual, and pulled it off, averaging 36 points a game on 51% shooting. He took 23 field-goal attempts (seven threes) and nearly 12 free-throw attempts a game. Second-year guard Reggie Jackson stepped into Westbrook's high-usage role and averaged 17-4-4 on 44% shooting.

Playing against the uptempo, small-ball Rockets, the Thunder shot 36% on nearly 28 threes a game and scaled back the minutes of their frontcourt rotation. Per-minute the team got big boosts from Derek Fisher, who shot 56% from three and had the team's best per-game plus/minus, and Nick Collison, whose stellar defense was perhaps underused.

Overall, without Westbrook, the Thunder outscored the eighth-seeded Rockets by only three points over four games, including losing a close-out game on their home floor.

5. The Small-Ball Question: Even without Westbrook soaking up 40 minutes a game in the backcourt, the Thunder still leaned heavily on small ball against the Rockets, rarely using conventional line-ups beyond a starting group that was badly outplayed when on the floor.

In four games without Westbrook, the Thunder played small in 152 of 192 minutes, and were at their best with shooter-heavy lineups featuring Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher, Kevin Martin and Kevin Durant with either Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison.

But that was against the Rockets, who like to play small themselves, play the fastest pace in the league, shoot the most threes, and are merely a decent rebounding team.

How much small-ball will the Thunder play against the Grizzlies, with the league's best post tandem and second-best regular-season rebounding performance? That might be the biggest question of the series.

The Grizzlies ultimately had success against the Clippers' small lineups, but dealing with those match-ups always feels cumbersome, and the Clippers showed that fronting and doubling with a small lineup can be successful in limiting shots for Gasol and Randolph.

The Grizzlies would probably welcome a degree of small ball. Randolph and Gasol have to rest sometime, and given the success the team has had with Prince at the four and given that Pondexter and Bayless seem more reliable bench options at the moment than Arthur or Davis, going small during Gasol and Randolph's normal rest time might be preferable.

But it will be in crunch-time and other periods in which the Grizzlies would prefer to stay big when the Thunder's small lineups will present a dilemma. Take away one of your All-Star bigs to match up defensively or stay big and try to pound them. Given how problematic Zach Randolph guarding Kevin Durant would be, the latter would probably result in Randolph guarding a Fisher or Sefolosha.

6. Durant's Big Lift: Without Westbrook (a phrase that's basically the preview mantra), Durant has had to carry a very heavy load. He played more than 44 minutes a game while using nearly a third of his teams possessions and all that was only enough to keep the Thunder's collective head just above water against the league's 16th-ranked defense.

If he had to work that hard against the Rockets, who threw Chandler Parsons, Carlos Delfino, and Francisco Garcia at him, how will he hold up against the second-ranked Grizzlies team defense and a better trio of individual defenders in long-armed vet Tayshaun Prince, DPOY finalist Tony Allen, and Quincy Pondexter?

7. Freeing Up Tony Allen: With Westbrook out, the Grizzlies will no longer need to switch Allen onto the point defensively. Mike Conley should be just fine against Reggie Jackson or Derek Fisher.

This means Allen can focus on trying to shut down Thunder sixth man Kevin Martin the way he did the Clippers' Jamal Crawford for much of the last series, which would be potentially crippling for the Thunder given the dearth of scoring options after Durant. And it will also free Allen up for more duty on Durant.

8. Frontcourt Familiarity: Overall, it's difficult to weigh past match-ups too much, not with Harden, Gay, and Westbrook absent in this series. But that's not really the case up front, where each team employs the same top three bigs as they did in the playoff series two years ago — Randolph, Gasol, and Darrell Arthur for the Grizzlies and Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Nick Collison for the Thunder. And there are lots of good subplots here: The bad blood between Randolph and Perkins. The defensive rivalry and contrast in defensive styles between Gasol (grounded, great) and Ibaka (a shot-blocking specialist, good but overrated). The question of whether Collison is Randolph Kryptonite.

This is a much better group of frontcourt defenders than the Grizzlies faced against the Clippers and Randolph, in particular, has tended to struggle offensively against the Thunder and particularly against Collison. (One of many reasons the argument that Ibaka should have been DPOY is ridiculous is that he's not as good as his back-up.)

After putting up huge numbers in the 2010-2011 regular season against the Thunder, Randolph's shooting numbers have suffered against the Thunder and moreso when Collison's been on the floor: 41% in the 2011 playoff series (37% against Collison), 31% last season (29% against Collison), and 33% this season (27% against Collison).

In his last meeting with the Thunder, Randolph shot 6-23 with seven turnovers. So the Thunder will be a good test for Randolph's current resurgence.

9. The Ibakas of the World, the Sefoloshas of the World: Against the Clippers, it was performances of secondary players, especially on the wing, that may have been the difference. And that could be the case again. Given their strength up front and at the point, the Grizzlies don't need the troika of Bayless/Pondexter/Prince to match the Thunder's Sefolosha/Fisher/Martin in terms of scoring or three-point shooting. But if they can it may be very difficult for the Thunder to overcome.

10. Obligatory Prediction: The Thunder have the best player and the homecourt advantage but the Grizzlies are deeper (how often can they say that?), more balanced, and seem to have more match-up answers. They also may be coming into this series with a stronger sense of identity and more confidence. I also trust the Grizzlies' coaching more than the Thunder's. I'm taking the Grizzlies in 6.

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