That photograph (screen shot, to be exact) to your left is the key factor in this series. Russell Westbrook will be walking to the arena on crutches, watching either from behind the bench at home or in a luxury box when the games move to Memphis.
And you know what Mike Conley needs to do? Send a thank you note to Patrick Beverly.
Let me tell you a story: The year before the Donnie Walsh era in New York began, I was sitting in Walsh’s office at what was then called the Conseco Fieldhouse having a discussion about Team USA and its lack of a true center, and we pretty much agreed that Greg Oden (who was playing high school ball in Indianapolis at the time) would be manning that spot for the red, white and blue for a decade or so. (Didn’t quite work out that way, eh?)
But then Donnie told me something I’ll never forget … “that point guard that Oden is playing with is going to be something special, too. Just you want and see.”
And with that tale told, we turn to the five most important factors in this series:
1: The Conley Factor. That point guard that Walsh was speaking about, of course, is Mike Conley, who is the best pure point guard in this series and maybe the best pure point guard remaining in the playoffs with Chris Paul eliminated, Derrick Rose keeping everyone guessing, Tony Parker playing at less than 100 percent and Stephen Curry in a league of his own as a pure scorer, if not a pure point guard. Not that the Grizzlies needed a game-changer, because they match up quite well with the Thunder even when the teams are at full strength, but he has such a huge advantage over Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher that he could end up being the most valuable player in this series. Despite being defended by Chris Paul, he finished the first-round series with games of 20 and 23 points. In the two previous games, both victories, Conley had 10 and then 13 assists. For the series, he had 50 assists, 10 turnovers and seven steals. I’ll go out on a limb and say he’ll double his steals total and improve his 5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio against OKC’s overmatched PGs.
2. The Marc Gasol Factor. The younger Gasol brother is 10 times better than Kendrick Perkins. Heck, when all is said and done and the careers of both Gasol brothers are judged alongside each other, Marc may be considered the better player. If he can draw early fouls against Perkins and make the Thunder turn to Hasheem Thabeet, this could be a massacre. Then again, if the Thunder decide to put Serge Ibaka on Gasol, that will negate some of the lopsidedness. But then who is going to guard Zach Randolph? can’t give that job to Kevin Durant, who not only will be bowled over on the defensive end but will be in danger of getting into foul trouble in a series in which he’ll need to average something in the area of 47 minutes per game. We all saw what a difference the Grizzlies’ front line made in their four consecutive victories over the Clippers. The Thunder are similarly overmatched down low.
3. The Kevin Durant Factor. I consider Tony Allen the best on-the-ball defender in the league, but I also consider Kevin Durant the most unguardable player in the league. So it will be interesting to see whether Memphis coach Lionel Hollins chooses to use Allen as the primary defender on Durant, thereby risking foul trouble for Allen, or turns to the longer, more wily Tayshaun Price. Hollins could go with the strategy of “Let Durant go for 50, let our bigs dominate the inside, and stop everyone else — especially Kevin Martin at the 3-point line”. Durant took 92 shots in the four games against the Rockets in which Westbrook did not play. In one of them, he was 12-for-16 from the field and 13-for-15 from the line — and the Thunder still lost that game. His point totals have declined in those four games from 40 to 38 to 36 to 27. IMHO, he needs to average 38 or better for OKC to advance.
4. The 3-point factor: Pop quiz: Who made the most 3-pointers for the Thunder during their first-round series against Houston, Kevin Martin? Kevin Durant? Nope. The answer is Derek Fisher whose 13 topped Martin’s 12 and Durant’s 12. Can D-Fish keep up that level of production? The Thunder attempted 170 3s in their six games against Houston, making 61. Fisher was 20-of-57 from 3-point range during 24 regular-season games for the Thunder, and we all know he has one or two late-game daggers left (or does he? Everyone, even Robert Horry, empties their chamber at some point). The Grizzlies and the 3-pointer? They don’t even belong in the same sentence together. They were last in the league in makes and attempts. They need to defend the 3-point line, not shoot from the 3-point line. The 3-point shot is a tremendous equalizer, and it is the Thunder’s best hope.
5. The Sam Presti vs. John Hollinger factor: Yes, they hold different positions in their respective front offices, but their recent work will be scrutinized. Hollinger was one of the driving forces in giving up Rudy Gay, Wayne Ellington and Marreese Speights for Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis. (Austin Daye and John Leuer have 9 minutes of combined garbage time through six playoff games). Prince and Davis brought little to the Clippers series. More will be needed from both here — especially Davis if Randolph gets into foul trouble, which could be the kind of thing that would contribute to Serge Ibaka becoming the most important player in this series. As for Presti, he traded away Eric Maynor and brought in Ronnie Brewer. If Reggie Jackson strikes out and the Grizz eliminate the No. 1 seed, Presti’s star fades even dimmer.
SHERIDAN: Grizzlies in 5.
HUBBARD: Grizzlies in 6.
HEISLER: Thunder in 6.
BERNUCCA: Grizzlies in 6.
HAMILTON: Grizzlies in 6.
PERKINS: Thunder in 6.
SCHAYES: Thunder in 5.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Grizzlies in 6.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: Grizzlies in 7.
ZAGORIA: Thunder in 7.
PARK: Grizzlies in 5.