Series preview: Thunder vs. Grizzlies
Our 5-on-5 crew breaks down the first-round matchup between the Thunder and Grizzlies:
1. What's the scariest thing -- good or bad -- about the Thunder?
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: Scott Brooks. He's made progress in a lot of areas, but can you really trust him not to play Kendrick Perkins 23 minutes a game like he did in last year's series loss to Memphis? Will he rely too heavily on Derek Fisher? With OKC, there's always the fear that one of the league's most talented rosters won't be fully maximized when it matters most.
Andrew Han, ClipperBlog: Last name Durant. First name Kevin. The 25-year-old Thunder superstar just locked up another scoring title while posting a career high in assist percentage. But more than anything, Durant is less willing to settle for jumpers, in particular the 2-point variety. When the presumptive MVP is making a concerted effort to get to the rim, get to the line and fire away from deep, could there be anything more frightening for an opponent?
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Their perimeter defense. When Oklahoma City is locked in, its athleticism can swallow up offenses, choking them of open looks beyond the 3-point line. But too often during the second half of the season, that level of effort has been missing, and even Memphis -- with Mike Miller playing a big role -- can make them pay for that.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: The score and time almost don't matter. When you have Durant, anything is possible. Because of his incredible scoring ability and the difficulty even contesting his shots, leads are just not safe. He's one of the handful of players in the league who can carry a team to a playoff series win.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Kevin Durant. He might not like his nickname -- the Slim Reaper -- but it's pretty fitting because that's the kind of terror he puts in opposing teams. There's no defensive strategy for him except for "hope he misses."
2. What's the scariest thing -- good or bad -- about the Grizzlies?
Foster: Tayshaun Prince. He was legitimately one of the worst offensive players in the league this season (43.8 true shooting percentage, 8.2 PER), but his defensive reputation might keep his playing time too high. Considering that the Grizzlies are 6.4 points better per 100 possessions with James Johnson on the floor, that's a scary proposition.
Han: What isn't intimidating about the Grizzlies? Their motto is Grit 'n' Grind. The face of their team is the ever imposing Zach Randolph. Heck, even their arena is nicknamed "The Grindhouse," where opposing teams' dreams go to die. A key reason title contenders were reluctant to face Memphis is that even if they felt comfortable in the matchup, everyone was aware that it would be a slogging, exhausting rock fight. Even their losses are taxing.
Pelton: The answer to this question is, and will always be, Zach Randolph. While the Thunder did a good job defending Randolph in the season series, holding him to 37.1 percent shooting, he remains frightening for all opponents.
Windhorst: Their experience. This a team that is built for the playoffs with their size and defensive grit, and this core has slayed several giants over the last few years. They will have no fear and they have enough battle scars that it will be tough to rattle them.
Young: Randolph and Gasol. Did you know the Grizzlies are 40-19 with Marc Gasol in the lineup? Defensively, they're on another level with their starting center, and not just that, his high-low passing to Zach Randolph and ability to take pressure off his interior buddy make the Grizzlies the matchup nightmare they always intend to be.
3. Who's the biggest X factor in this series?
Foster: Mike Miller. Even though he shockingly managed to play in all 82 games this year, this is where he'll make his money. Oklahoma City is extremely susceptible to giving up open 3s, as they ranked 27th in made 3-point field goals allowed this season. Gasoline, meet fire: Miller is hitting 45.9 percent from deep this year and has historically torched OKC.
Han: Mike Miller. One of the recurring issues for the Grizzlies the past few seasons has been their inability to space the floor for their duo, Randolph and Marc Gasol. Enter Miller, who is shooting a career high from deep. If he, Courtney Lee and Mike Conley can nail their open 3s, it offers a dimension to the Grizzlies' offense that they've never been afforded before and can provide enough firepower to complement their typically stalwart defense.
Pelton: Dave Joerger. The first-year head coach was able to guide Memphis to the playoffs after a slow start and Marc Gasol's injury, but now the pressure increases exponentially. Can Joerger manage his wing rotation to keep shooters on the floor and minimize the impact of Tayshaun Prince?
Windhorst: Mike Miller. When he's on from the outside -- and he has been lately -- the Grizzlies are a different offensive team. Miller always seems to be able to get open, especially with so much attention on Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Thunder, by the way, probably still have nightmares about the last time they saw Miller in the playoffs, when he was making seven 3-pointers in Game 5 of the 2012 Finals.
Young: Russell Westbrook. The Grizzlies beat the Thunder in five games last season, and it was pretty obvious why. Durant was operating alone, and that swarming Memphis defense double-, triple- and quadruple-teamed him. Westbrook in two games against the Grizzlies this season: 24.0 points on 58.3 percent shooting, 7.5 assists and two wins.
4. What's one BOLD prediction for this series?
Foster: Kevin Durant averages less than 25 points a game over the whole series. Memphis has an excellent stable of wing defenders (Tony Allen, Courtney Lee, Tayshaun Prince, James Johnson) to rotate on to the probable MVP, and Russell Westbrook certainly won't be shy about shooting in his playoff return.
Han: Mike Conley will be the second-best player on the court after Durant. Conley has made waves for himself this season, forced to carry the offensive load during the stretch when Gasol was injured. He's become a more aggressive player for it, taking career highs in 3-point and free throw attempts. Did the All-Star snub motivate Conley? Possibly, but the audience benefits in a point guard showdown between Conley and Russell Westbrook.
Pelton: At least one game comes down to Kevin Durant attempting a shot to win or lose as the buzzer sounds.
Windhorst: Mike Conley will outplay Russell Westbrook in several games. Conley is one of the most underrated players in the league. He had a couple of huge games in the series against the Thunder last season, albeit while Westbrook was out.
Young: Westbrook will lead OKC in scoring. Durant scores 25 in his sleep, but the Grizzlies are likely going to try to make Westbrook beat them, hoping he'll play out of control and reckless. Durant has proved himself to be a far better creator and passer, and Westbrook will have opportunities to go on the attack.
5. Who wins this series and in how many games?
5-on-5: 2014 Playoff Series Previews
Our five-expert teams break down every first-round series in the '14 postseason.
• 5-on-5 preview: Pacers vs. Hawks
• 5-on-5 preview: Heat vs. Bobcats
• 5-on-5 preview: Raptors vs. Nets
• 5-on-5 preview: Bulls vs. Wizards
• 5-on-5 preview: Spurs vs. Mavericks
• 5-on-5 preview: Thunder vs. Grizzlies
• 5-on-5 preview: Clippers vs. Warriors
• 5-on-5 preview: Rockets vs. Blazers
Foster: The Grizzlies are 40-19 this year with Marc Gasol in the lineup. If he had been healthy the whole season, Memphis would be hosting a playoff series right now. Point being, this is no ordinary first-round 2-7 mismatch. Memphis will push Oklahoma City to seven games, but the Thunder will ultimately prevail.
Han: Oklahoma City in seven. I'm mostly reminded of the 2011 second-round series between these two teams: Memphis swiped the first game, and the two alternated victories until the Thunder were finally able to double up their wins in games 4 and 5. The Grizzlies' swagger is back, a team that's been in playoff mode since Jan. 1. So they fear no one in the association. Still, Oklahoma City has Durant.
Pelton: Oklahoma City in six games, perhaps on that Durant game winner in the finale.
Windhorst: Thunder in six. The Thunder at full power are hard to handle, but I expect this to be a seesaw battle.
Young: Thunder in five. The Grizzlies present matchup issues, but OKC's biggest issue the last month has been defensive inconsistency. And the Grizzlies don't intend to outscore people. The Thunder went 3-1 against Memphis this season -- the one loss didn't feature Westbrook -- and with OKC healthy, the Grizzlies just can't keep up.