By John Carroll
The second round of the Western Conference playoffs will provide a match up between two of the youngest and most exciting teams in the league. The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies both got their franchises first playoff series win. Both teams are playing at a very high level and this should be a high octane series. During the regular season the Grizzlies posted a 3-1 record versus the Thunder. Each game was closely contested, with Memphis scoring an average of 105.5 points per game while the Thunder scored 104 points per game.
The Grizzlies and the Thunder are both coming off impressive first round performances. The Grizzlies became only the second number #8 seed to beat a #1 seed in a seven game series. They were able to defeat the Spurs because of their dominance in the paint, their athleticism, and defensive intensity. The Thunder beat the Denver Nuggets by controlling the paint and terrific offensive performances by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook,
Five Keys to Series
Control of the paint: The Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Kendrick Perkins to defend the elite big men in the Western Conference. Before the Perkins trade the Thunder were routinely dominated in the paint and were a soft interior defensive team. Perkins has brought them an edge and toughness that will be needed to slow down Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Randolph had a great series versus the Spurs. In the closeout game he went for 31 points and could not be stopped down the stretch. Memphis owned the paint in the four regular season games; they were a plus 68 in points in the paint. Perkins must use his physicality and toughness to keep Randolph and Gasol from posting up deep in the paint. Serge Ibaka will also be called upon to provide physical toughness and rebounding in this series. During the regular season Randolph averaged 26.5 points per game on 58% shooting versus the Thunder, while Gasol averaged 11.5 points per game on 58% shooting.
The Thunder will also need interior scoring from Perkins and Ibaka to take some of the pressure off of Westbrook and Durant. Look for Scott Brooks to call Perkins and Ibaka’s number early in Game One 1 in hopes putting drawing fouls on Zach Randolph. The rebounding battle will be very important for the Thunder’s success in this series. The Thunder big men work hard on the offensive glass. The Grizzlies must keep Perkins and Ibaka off the offensive glass in order to win this series.
Point guard play: Mike Conley and the Grizzlies struggled to defend Tony Parker and could not keep him out the paint. The Grizzlies have a bigger problem on their hands with the athletic and explosive, Russell Westbrook. In their four regular season games, Westbrook torched the Grizzlies scoring 25 points and delivering 9 assists per game. This is one of the key matchups of this series and the Grizzlies must find a way to slow down Westbrook. They must sprint back in transition and corral him with more than one man. They must shrink the floor and not allow him to get where he wants with the ball. When he attempts to take the ball at the rim the Grizzlies big men must step up to him block his shot, take a charge or knock him down. In addition they must hard trap/hedge all of his pick and rolls and attempt to get the ball out of his hands.
Defending Durant: The Memphis Grizzlies made the midseason move of picking up Shane Battier to give them a lockdown defender, a 3 point shooter and a veteran leader. In this series Battier and Tony Allen will be given the difficult assignment of containing Kevin Durant, this season's NBA scoring leader. In the three head to head games before Battier’s arrival Durant averaged 33 points per game and shot 49 percent from the field. In the one game after the Battier trade, Durant scored only 23 points on 40% shooting. Durant will look to take advantage of his length versus Allen and Battier. The two Grizzlies defenders must be physical with Durant, getting up into his body and a hand up to contest his shots. They must be physical without fouling Durant. He led the league in free throw attempts at 8.7 per game.
Bench Production: The battle of the second units will be one of the keys to winning this series. The Thunder bench in the postseason has averaged 25 points per game, while the Grizzlies bench has scored 28. O.J. Mayo and James Harden, have led the way for their respective teams during the postseason with 10 points a game. Harden will try to elevate his play and take some of the scoring load off of Westbrook and Durant. Another Grizzlie to watch in this series will be Darrell Arthur. He will look to give Memphis a spark of the bench with his athleticism and scoring. He provides another interior scoring option when Randolph and Gasol are not on the court.
Making the defense pay: In order to contain the scoring production of Durant, Westbrook and Randolph both teams must play great help defense. The defenses will be so focused on limiting points in the paint, that it is inevitable that both teams will get open looks from the perimeter. On the year the Grizzlies shot 33% from behind the 3 point line and the Thunder 34% from behind the arc. The Thunder will need Harden, Daequan Cook and Eric Maynor to knock down open looks versus the help defense of the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies will need Conley, Mayo, and Battier to capitalize on open looks. If the Grizzlies are unable to make open perimeter shots, the Thunder will be give a lot more help versus Randolph and Gasol.
Prediction: Thunder in seven