Friday, May 10, 2013

Griz-Thunder Game 3 Preview: Twelve Takes, Part One

Posted By on Fri, May 10, 2013 at 12:02 AM

  • Ronald Martinez, Getty Images
I was mostly done researching and thinking my way through the elements of a planned two-part preview of Saturday's game — one part meant to post Thursday morning, with a second part following Friday morning — and had begun the writing process Wednesday night when my laptop decided it had had enough. I lost everything. I'll spare you the details of how this post came to be — a planes, trains, and automobiles of compositional technologies — but suffice it to say this isn't quite what I'd intended.

The problem did heighten an issue I grapple with quite a bit: How much should I "show my work," in math-class terms. I've always consulted statistics as a necessary companion to personal observation and other forms of information. Concepts such as pace, usage, efficiency, and other building blocks of "advanced" statistics are not new trends in this space. Often I cite specific numbers to support claims. But sometimes the math is left in the background, an unstated element that helped form an opinion or hone an observation.

I'm not sure which is preferable — some readers like to follow the data; others, I'm sure, grow weary of too much statistical recitation. So I try to find a balance. And this time, with research lost and limits of time and technology weighing against a recreation, I may not show much work. Just know that when I say that Kendrick Perkins is killing the Thunder or that Scott Brooks should really consider using more small-ball or that Jerryd Bayless may be hurting the Griz defense more than helping the offense that there's something backing all of that up.

So, here's a somewhat truncated and considerably less precise first installment of my planned twelve takes. Part two will post later in the day Friday if things go well or Saturday morning if they don't.

1. New Nickname Alert: This has no bearing on the outcome of the series, obviously, but I took great pleasure in the TNT postgame show after Game 2, when Charles Barkley christened Zach Randolph with a new nickname, "Ol' Man River," in reference to Randolph's "old-man game" and the way he keeps rolling along against younger, more athletic competitors. (They get weary, and sick of trying.) This is even more perfect than Barkley knows, given Memphis' perch on the river the song refers to as well as the song's own treasured history in Memphis. It's too bad we can't have James Hyter bless this with a FedExForum performance.

This isn't the first time, incidentally, that a national broadcast has made a brilliant musical reference with regard to the Grizzlies — or to Randolph, to be specific. In the 2011 playoff run, there was a package on the Randolph and Gasol combo — before first-round, Game 2, I think; I can't remember the network — to the tune of John Fogerty's "Big Train (From Memphis)." This was also perfect. The rumbling, locomotive imagery and insistent, old-fashioned rhythm matching Gasol and Randolph's rumbling, old-fashioned style.

It occurred to me, thinking of the late Hyter, that perhaps if the Grizzlies advance we could get Fogerty in town for a Griz-specific update of his song: "Big Spain (From Memphis)," anyone?

2. What's Homecourt Worth?: After the two games in Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies and Thunder are locked at 10-10 over the past three seasons and, as I wrote in my series preview, this rivalry has featured plenty of road wins by each team. Coming back to Memphis, how much is homecourt worth? Grizzlies fans would like to think quite a bit, given that the Grizzlies won all three home games in the Clipper series by double digits.

I'm sure someone has done a study on this issue, but I was curious about how much of a factor homecourt has been so far in these playoffs, so I did some quick number-crunching on how much point differentials swung from building to building in the first round. Here's how it came out, from biggest to smallest homecourt differentials:

Pacers/Hawks: +26.3 (Pacers dominated at home)
Clippers/Grizzlies: +16.3
Nets/Bulls: +8.3
Heat/Bucks: +5.5
Thunder/Rockets: +5.0
Nuggets/Warriors: +5.0
Knicks/Celtics: +0.7 (homecourt didn't mean much here)
Spurs/Lakers: -14.5 (Lakers unraveled on their home floor, and we all loved it)

Throw out the top and bottom numbers as outliers, and it averages to a +6.8 homecourt swing, which doesn't seem unreasonable. Apply that number here, where the Thunder had a -2.0 point differential on their home floor, and that would have the Grizzlies going +8.8 at FedExForum. I certainly wouldn't book that, but it doesn't seem unreasonable if the trajectory holds.

3. A Conley and Gasol Series: The first-round series against the Clippers, to most everyone's surprise, turned out to be a Zach Randolph series. In my playoff preview, I had written that, in contrast to 2011, this post-season would be a time for Marc Gasol to be the alpha dog and Randolph to become the sidekick. But, in round one, it was more like Randolph was 1 and Gasol was 1A

But the match-ups aren't quite as favorable for Randolph this round, where both Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison are better defenders for Randolph than anyone the Clippers employed. Randolph actually handled Collison okay in OKC, perhaps the rare instance where a tight call benefited "Ol' Man River." Randolph got called more often for his standard pre-rebound shoving than is the norm, but Collison's physical defense was also unusually targeted, with the Thunder reserve and "no-stats star" fouling out in 15 minutes in Game 2. This time, so far, it's actually been Ibaka who's been more of a problem, with Randolph shooting 9-23 (39%) with Ibaka on the floor in the first two games, and getting his attempt swatted four times.

After 21 points a game on 57% shooting against the Clippers, Randolph's production slid to 17 on 46% in Oklahoma City. I think that's probably a pretty reasonable expectation — and should be good enough for the Grizzlies — for the rest of this series.

Randolph's usage rate was also lower in the first two against the Thunder than it had been against the Clippers, with more touches shifting to Conley and Gasol, as should be the case with these match-ups.

The Grizzlies have bet much of their present and even more of their future on the Conley/Gasol tandem, and this series should be the proving ground.

I've already written plenty about Conley and his match-up advantages, but it's even more stark with Gasol, where the Thunder lack a single frontcourt option who matches up remotely well with him. And so far so good: Gasol averaged 22-8-4 on 59% shooting, with 4 "stocks" a game for good measure.

If the Grizzlies take this series, it's going to be a coming out party for this pair.

4. Defending Durant: Solving this riddle demands a two-part question — who and how? And as dominant as Durant was in OKC — how's 36-13-8 on 51% shooting? — the Grizzlies seem to have found some decent answers by the end of Game 2.

As for who, it's obviously going to be a committee assignment, with Tayshaun Prince, Quincy Pondexter, and — finally — Tony Allen all having their moments. And I image Prince will still start out on Durant. But one can only assume that the final seven minutes of Game 2 swayed Lionel Hollins to use Allen too, even if only late in the game.

For all the talk of the height difference between Allen and Durant, I think quality and style are bigger factors here, or should be.

While Prince and Pondexter are good defenders, Allen is simply better. But Allen is at his best either when he can lock in on an opponent with the ball or he can fully freelance. Against ball-dominant Durant, he can do the former. But guarding someone like Kevin Martin — so adept at backdoor cuts and with such a quick release — while Durant is on the floor resulted in Allen ball-watching and wanting to help on Durant, yielding too many easy attempts for Martin. Switching this around, with the aggressive Allen on Durant and more disciplined Prince on Martin seemed to work well down the stretch of Game 2, and I think it would again.

As for how, defending Durant isn't a one-man job. When the Grizzlies were effective in the fourth, it wasn't just because of Allen. He was also getting good help from Randolph and Gasol. Against the Thunder, it probably makes sense to bring a double team from the paint instead of the wing; better a crowded catch and finish for one of the Thunder's offensively challenged bigs than an open jumper for a Martin or Derek Fisher.

Durant may well be the planet's most talented pure scorer, but if you've got Allen as his primary defender and Gasol stepping out to help, those are two top-five finishers in the Defensive Player of the Year vote. Hard to do much better than that.

5. Free Throws: There's not a whole lot to say about this, but it's certainly very important. The Grizzlies, led by Conley and Gasol, were a good free-throw shooting team in the regular season, their 77% mark ranking 10th in the league. That percentage dipped only slightly against the Clippers, to 76%, where the Grizzlies feasted on a bump in attempts (13 more a game over the regular season).

But in the first two games in Oklahoma City, this was a problem. The Grizzlies shot 37-56 (66%) from the line over two games. A season-average shooting performance from the line would have swung Game 1, which the Grizzlies lost by only two points.

Randolph has been the biggest culprit here, shooting 7-12 (58%) in Oklahoma City after shooting 75% in the regular season. After that it's just been an accumulation of players missing one (or so) more than the odds would suggest. But it adds up, and if these games stay close, a continuation of this team-wide dip could be costly, especially since the Grizzlies, with Gasol and Randolph imposing themselves inside, have continued to get to the line at a higher rate than in the regular season.

6. "Grizzlies Basketball": For most of this current run, the Grizzlies feasted on a specific style of play. Post offense and aggressive, physical defense, yes. But more specifically the combination of offensive rebounds and forced turnovers to generate more attempts than their opponent, thus mitigating the team's mediocre shooting.

That style had shifted a little bit after the mid-season Rudy Gay trade, with replacement Prince a more solid defender and better passer but less adept at generating turnovers and not quite as strong on the boards.

But it came back in Oklahoma City. The Thunder were already pretty wobbly when it comes to taking care of the ball, ranking 29th in the NBA in turnover rate in the regular season. In the first two games, the Grizzlies hounded the Thunder into an even worse rate while the Grizzlies their own regular-season turnover rate. The result was a -4 advantage for the Grizzlies in turnover differential. On the boards, the Grizzlies bested the Thunder by nine offensive rebounds over two games. The twist here, though, is that this was less the result of stellar work by the Grizzlies on the offensive boards than on the defensive boards, where gang rebounding — Conley, Tayshaun Prince, Quincy Pondexter — helped the Grizzlies severely limit the Thunder's second-chance opportunities.

As a result, the Grizzlies were able to build up enough extra attempts to offset the Thunder's superior shooting.

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