A certain someone made a bold prediction prior to the season that the Memphis Grizzlies would be facing the Indiana Pacers in the NBA finals. OK, it was me. Which means you can guess which way my prediction is going to go, for better or worse.
You do not get to divorce yourself from your preseason predictions unless something crazy happens along the way, such as a team trading away its best player of something similar (that was the case last year when the Grizzlies shed Rudy Gay). So a warning is in order: I am looking at this series with a rooting interest in the team from Beale Street, though I will try not to let that impact my coverage.
And I have been a major Kevin Durant booster throughout the season, declaring before the month of March ended that the MVP race was over, then giving Durant my MVP vote when I cast my postseason awards ballots. (I also put Serge Ibaka on my All-Defensive team). My Oklahoma roots are also strong enough that I named my second son after Cache Creek, which Oklahomans know runs along the southern border of the state, just north of the Red River.
This is the series that I will drop everything to watch, just like the Warriors-Clippers series that would not have come to fruition if Durant had not fearlessly drove the lane in the final seconds of Game 82 against Detroit to dunk the ball to complete a huge fourth-quarter comeback against the Detroit Pistons, locking the Thunder into the No. 2 seed instead of leaving the door open for the Clippers to move up.
I love both of the cities and states these teams represent for numerous reasons. Oklahoma City has cheap gasoline. Memphis has cheap beer. OKC has Sam Presti, who I have found to be a nice guy. Memphis has John Hollinger, who shares my love of Dick Bavetta’s quirks and is an even nicer guy than Presti, who cannot help himself from viewing the media with suspicion. (I know which media member he tried to hire to act as a spy, but will spare that media member a pubic disclosure of his identity).
The Thunder have had several deep recent playoff runs. The Grizzlies have had the same thing, though getting swept in the Western Conference finals by the Spurs a year ago took some of the shine off their season.
This series should be a thriller, given the experience level of the two teams. I hope it goes 7, because the East playoffs are going to drain us of our love of the game, and the battles in the West are going to pump us back up. So without further ado, the five key factors:
1. The Lionel Hollins factor, a.k.a the Dave Joerger factor.
I am not afraid to make the statement that Hollins was a better coach than Joerger. If Hollins’ people skills were a little better, he’d still be coaching this Memphis team.
When will Joerger be tested the most? Easy … at the end of close games, when Scott Brooks pulls out his magic greaseboard and diagrams a play that 9 times out of 10 will end with Durant taking the final shot. As for Joerger, who will he turn to? A wily veteran like Mike Miller? Another shooter, Courtney Lee? One of his two beastly bigs, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol? Or his mercurial point guard, Mike Conley.
Only Joerger knows who he trusts the most in the closing seconds of close games, but he is not short of options. When it comes to other facets of coaching in tight games this will be new territory for Joerger to navigate in terms of managing timeouts, playing the offense/defense possession game, and devising schemes to keep the ball out of the hands of Durant. Joerger was known as the best kept secret in coaching before he took this job, and we’ll now find out how he performs under pressure.
2. Who will defend Kevin Durant?
As we all know, or should know … Durant is unguardable. Standing 6-foot-11 when barefoot and 7 feet tall when he is wearing sneakers, Durant is too much to handle for even the very best defenders in the league.
Memphis has one of those in Tony Allen, and it will be interesting to see whether Joerger uses Allen as the primary and/or late game defender on Durant, or Russell Westbrook.
When game-planning in advance of a game against the Thunder, 29 coaches tell their players the same thing: Durant is going to hurt us no mater what, so let’s fixate our attention on Westbrook and try to keep him from doing more of the same. Trying to find a way to keep Durant from reaching 30 points is almost impossible, but that is one of the keys to having a chance to win. Durant will likely not get into foul trouble, but Westbrook might. Also, Westbrook can be extremely turnover-prone when defended by a pest (he can also get hurt by pests, as Patrick Beverley would tell you). And if the Grizzlies can make the Thunder use Reggie Jackson for more than 20 minutes, half of the battle will be won.
3. Will the Grizzlies shoot too many jump shots, or play to their strengths?
You can usually tell what kind of a game the Grizzlies are going to play by observing what they do in the first 56 minutes of any given game.
If they are pounding the ball inside to Gasol and Randolph, good things usually happen for them. If they are settling for jumper after jumper, they are usually doomed.
Memphis was seventh in the NBA in FG percentage at .464, while OKC was sixth at .471. But while those numbers are close, there are some huge differences between how each team is able to shoot so efficiently. Memphis was 27th in the NBA in scoring at 96.1 ppg, while Oklahoma City was fifth at 106.2. Both teams averaged 21.9 assists per game a a testament to the Grizzlies superiority in moving the ball rather than settling for isolation plays.
Of course, when the player going one-on-one in isolation is Durant, you are not really settling.
Oklahoma City was a middle-of-the-pack 3-point shooting team at .363, good for 14th place, while Memphis was a little better than you might expect, converting 35.3 percent — good for 19th in the NBA, and better than the percentages posted by playoff teams the Clippers, Bobcats and Bulls.
4. Can Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins negate the Grizzlies’ low post edge?
When he played in the Eastern Conference, Perkins was known as one of the few players who was deft at defending Dwight Howard. Perkins would use his lower body to get under Howard and push him away from the basket, a strategy that he undoubtedly use against Gasol — though not with the same effect because Gasol has superior range compared to Howard.
Randolph is anything but a leaper, and his two-inch vertical on his jump shot could be just the margin Ibaka needs to start blocking his jump shots on a somewhat consistent basis. Ibaka also is known as a strong help defender, but he’ll have to be careful not to leave Randolph uncontested around the basket. That is really where Randolph butters his bread, and if the Thunder can negate the effectiveness of the Grizzlies’ two bigs, this one could be a sweep for OKC. Do I expect that to happen? No.
5. Is Mike Conley anywhere near as good as Russell Westbrook?
As a shooter? Possibly.
As a finisher around the basket? Sometimes.
As a 3-point shooter? Yes.
As a leader? Ah, that is where things will get interesting.
For all of his talent, Westbrook is least effective when he is looking for his own shot and taking attempts away from Durant. Also, Westbrook can tend to be somewhat of a hothead, and Memphis would like nothing more than to see him lose his cool over a ticky-tack foul … or to accumulate enough fouls to make the Thunder turn things over to Reggie Jackson, whose effectiveness took a big slide over the final 2 months of the season. If Conley can make his 3s at the same clip as he did in the regular season, 38 percent, he may be able to play Westbrook to a draw. And if he clearly outplays Westbrook, both head-to-head and as a facilitator for his team, it could be the most crucial position matchup in the series.
MORE PLAYOFF PREVIEWS
CHRIS SHERIDAN – GRIZZLIES in 6
MARK HEISLER – THUNDER in 5
JAN HUBBARD – GRIZZLIES in 6
DANNY SCHAYES – Thunder in 6
CHRIS BERNUCCA – THUNDER in 6
PETER MAY – THUNDER in 6
BOBBY GONZALEZ – THUNDER in 6
SHLOMO SPRUNG – THUNDER in 6
JIM PARK – THUNDER in 6
MIKE SCOTTO – THUNDER in 6
ANDY KAMENETZKY – THUNDER in 7
BRIAN KAMENETZKY – THUNDER in 6