Series preview: Thunder vs. Grizzlies
1. Who faces the most pressure on the Grizzlies?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Tayshaun Prince, Tony Allen or whoever has the assignment of guarding Kevin Durant. With Russell Westbrook out, Durant is options No. 1-through-3 for the Thunder. Allen on Durant will be great theater. He's played KD well and even guarded him chest-to-chest with his hands behind his back to prevent Durant from executing the rip-through.
Andrew Han, ClipperBlog: Zach Randolph. Z-Bo just pancaked the Clippers after rediscovering his form of 2010-11. And, lo and behold, the Grizzlies' second-round matchup from that same year is waiting for them. Memphis will need Randolph to continue his resurgence if the Grizzlies are aiming to avenge another playoff defeat.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Tayshaun Prince. Not only is he one of Memphis' primary Durant defenders, but the Grizzlies need him to score, too. And if he has a poor series, with a spot in the Western Conference finals at stake, all the He's No Rudy Gay talk starts up again ... even though I personally remain firm in the belief that the trade was the right move for Memphis' present and future.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Mike Conley. The Grizzlies are just fine without Rudy Gay, for a lot of reasons. One of the biggest being that Conley has assumed the primary crunch-time facilitating and shot-making role, and has done a fantastic job running the Grizzlies' half-court offense. OKC is going to play physical and look to dig in. Conley is the wildcard, and a player the Thunder might not have an answer for.
2. Who faces the most pressure on the Thunder?
Arnovitz: The Thunder built a sound defense this season, but with Westbrook on the shelf, the Thunder's success or failure is predicated on one guy -- Kevin Durant. He's still going through the learning process of being a one-man band, but the learning curve is steep. Can he crack the code against a Grizzlies defense that yields nothing?
Crain: Kendrick Perkins. Whether he's guarding Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol, Perkins will be under fire to move out of his comfort zone to guard players quite capable of scoring baskets from 10-15 feet and capable of drawing fouls in the paint.
Han: Kevin Durant. With Westbrook being sidelined for the playoffs, any criticism that was being deflected before now falls squarely on Durant, for better or worse. Can he live up to being the best player in the West and put the Thunder on his back?
Stein: I suppose you could nominate Reggie Jackson because he's now starting in Russell Westbrook's place. Or Kevin Durant just by virtue of the humongous load KD has to carry now that Westbrook is out for the playoffs. But I truly feel as though the pressure is off the Thunder after they survived that Houston scare. It's the only benefit of Life After Russ: No one expects much out of OKC anymore.
Young: Kevin Martin. In what was probably the biggest game of his career, Martin answered the bell in Game 6 against the Rockets, scoring 25 points, 21 in the first half. It not only reminded everyone how fantastic a pure scorer Martin still is, but it showed that he can pick up a lot of the scoring void left by Westbrook. If he scores consistently in four games, OKC can win the series.
3. What's the most intriguing matchup in this series?
Arnovitz: Zach Randolph versus whoever the Thunder decide to stick at the 4-spot. The Grizzlies' best lineup is a conventional one -- two prototypical big men who work out of the post. If the Thunder opt to go small, the Grizzlies will have to either hide Randolph on the perimeter or take one of their bigs off the court. Tough predicament. When Nick Collison is out there facing off against Randolph, grab the popcorn and enjoy.
Crain: Tony Allen versus Kevin Martin. Allen has made a name for himself as the best perimeter defender in the league, but Martin has been a Griz-killer stretching back to his days in Sacramento. With Westbrook injured, Martin will be counted on to produce more points, which won't be easy against Allen.
Han: Scott Brooks versus Lionel Hollins. Two games into the series against the Clippers and the questions surrounding Hollins were deafening. Those critics have largely been quieted after a stark turnaround in Round 1. But for Brooks, the vulnerabilities of the Thunder have only raised the eyebrows of observers who had written Oklahoma City in as a perennial finalist.
Stein: What Memphis, as a team, throws at Durant. The Rockets actually were a better team defensively in the playoffs than they were in the regular season because Francisco Garcia and Patrick Beverley were unexpectedly handed roles of prominence, but the Grizzlies' team D is on another level. Something tells me Durant won't be able to leisurely walk the ball up the floor like he did so often in the last round.
Young: Tony Allen versus whoever. Without Russell Westbrook, Allen is freed to roam. He could check Reggie Jackson. He could check Martin. Or he could check Kevin Durant. Lionel Hollins has an option he's never had before and can sick his bulldog defender on any of OKC's top offensive players.
4. Who or what is the X-factor in this series?
Arnovitz: As witnessed in Game 6 against the Rockets, Kevin Martin. Durant will do the heavy lifting, but the Thunder need someone else on the perimeter to create offense. If Martin can do that consistently, he'll give Durant and the Thunder's primary ball handlers somewhere else to go.
Crain: Quincy Pondexter. He has been a defensive stopper off the bench for the Grizzlies at all three perimeter positions, but he will be tested against Durant and Martin when relieving Prince and Allen.
Han: The Thunder's role players. This is the first time the Thunder will be facing the suffocating Memphis defense without Westbrook's athleticism and paint probing. If OKC does not get enough offensive production from Martin, Serge Ibaka or any other player, this series may turn into a strait jacket for Durant.
Stein: The Grizzlies have to get some scoring from Prince, Tony Allen, Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter. Not from all four every night, but the Grizz could really use points from two of 'em on a nightly basis to make sure they take advantage of the H-U-G-E opportunity that's been presented here in the wake of the Westbrook injury.
Young: Nick Collison. Check it: In the three games this season between OKC and Memphis, Zach Randolph played 71 minutes with Collison on the bench. The Grizzlies were a +23. Randolph played 44 minutes with Collison on the the court. Randolph shot 27.3 percent from the field and the Grizzlies were a -32. Nobody defends Randolph better than Collison, and he could be the great equalizer for OKC.
5. Who wins this series and in how many games?
Arnovitz: Grizzlies in 6. Their defense is no longer news, but the Grizzlies have found something offensively over the past three months. They're making quick decisions with the ball and punishing opponents inside with their size and cleverness. The Thunder still have the best player on the court, though, and it would be no surprise to see them squeak out a series win.
Crain: Grizzlies in 6. The Grizzlies' big men have an advantage over the Thunder and Mike Conley can match Reggie Jackson's speed and is a superior defender. The Grizzlies won two of three games this season with a healthy Westbrook, so his loss might be too much for the Thunder to overcome.
Han: Grizzlies in 6. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, it was a seven-game knock-down, drag-out fight. And even with Westbrook, the Thunder barely escaped with the shirt on their back. Two years later, the Grizzlies look even better than before, and the Thunder are missing two key players from that 2011 semifinals matchup, Westbrook and James Harden.
Stein: Grizzlies in 6. Buckle up for a San Antonio-Memphis matchup in the West finals.
Young: Grizzlies in 6. These games will be close. They will be tense. And it will likely be decided by who can find consistent buckets in the half court in the final five minutes. With the Grizzlies being such a tremendous defensive team, Durant might have to do too much to carry his team through crunch-time. It could swing either way, but Memphis is healthy, and OKC is going to miss Westbrook.