Time: 8:30 PM Central Daylight Time
Place: Oklahoma City Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
TV: Turner Network Television
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1), Soul Classics 103.5 FM WRBO
Are you ready for some more?
The Grizzlies and Thunder have now played 12 quarters of basketball in the past four days, and I'm already getting the sweats just thinking about what is in store tonight. Honestly, at this point I'm fine with whatever else happens. Tonight's final score could be 78-75 and I would still be sold on it the entire way. This second round series has thus far been everything that we could hope for, and everything we thought we were getting in the first round but did not quite get there.
The Thunder passed two huge tests on Monday - 1) overcoming a huge deficit on the road when everything was falling apart, and 2) hanging tough when a 4th quarter lead once again evaporated to nothing. OKC is gaining mental wins moment by moment and I now think that the mental edge that the Grizzlies could claim as their advantage in Game One is almost negligible at this point. What I think we're in for tonight is a match-up dominated game.
Here are the two key match-ups to watch:
I am probably sounding like a broken record at this point, but what really emerged from Game Four is that the Thunder's guard collection of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Eric Maynor, and even Daequan Cook is vastly superior to the Grizzlies Mike Conley, Tony Allen, O.J. Mayo, Sam Young, Greivis Vasquez, and (Lord help the Grizz) Ishmael Smith.
While Conley and Mayo have provided some valuable if uneven outside shooting, once the Grizzlies get past those two guys (as we saw in Game Four) there is a huge drop-off in offensive talent. The Thunder were giving Vasquez a shot any time he wanted it. Credit to the young PG for hitting some big shots, but if Vasquez is playing crunch time minutes, then a whole lot of things have gone wrong leading up to that point.
The key to OKC's whole guard advantage is of course Westbrook, because nobody on the Grizzlies can check him in the open court one-on-one. Mayo had success against him in the half-court when Westbrook tried to body up, but Mayo cannot stay in front of Westbrook when there is open space. In the alternative, Conley can stay in front of Westbrook, but he gets destroyed once Russ decides to take him into the post. That's the pointy end of the match-up. What makes OKC's advantage really sing though is when Harden is sharing the back-court with Westbrook. When the Thunder go guard-heavy (and may even play Cook at the 3-spot) the Grizzlies really struggle, because in this line-up Conley's size and strength disadvantages are fully exposed. Both Westbrook and Harden can drive, pick-and-roll, or post up, so Memphis must pick its poison.
What I'd really love to see in Game Five is for Westbrook to move off the ball on some offensive sets and let Harden coordinate things. I would imagine this would give Westbrook even more free reign to exploit his physical advantages.
Kevin Durant needs to be involved in the offense, of course, but here is my personal stance. As long as Westbrook has favorable match-ups against Conley or (even better) Vasquez, I don't care if he jacks up 40 shots. In the playoffs, you exploit the match-up until you can't.
The really surprising revelation that was really driven home Monday night is that Kendrick Perkins has been a defensive liability in this series. He certainly isn't terrible and he always possesses the knowledge base and experience to coordinate things, but he is a man without a kingdom right now. He is not quick enough in the post to stay in front of Zach Randolph and his adept footwork, and he does not play well enough in open space to guard the Marc Gasol high screen and rolls. In Game Four, Perkins did not have the kind of defensive impact we have come to expect, and he fouled out in OT #3.
On the other side of the court, Serge Ibaka has struggled to deal with Randolph's physical play and has also seen his block numbers drop because of the trouble Perkins has had. Ibaka struggled with fouls all game last time and did not have any meaningful plays until late in the 3rd OT (although those plays - a block on Gasol and a short jumper, were huge). Injuries have hampered Ibaka's play as well.
The Thunder really did not have success against the front line until Nick Collison (35 minutes) and Nazr Mohammed (20 minutes) got extended minutes. You could really see their collective experience and knowledge take hold as Z-Bo and Gasol cooled down mightily in the second half. I was thoroughly impressed by Collison, who played Randolph perfectly most of the second half. Rarely did Randolph get open looks at the rim, and Collison did a great job staying in front of Randolph any time he went to his jab-step or spin-move. The two Memphis bigs wound up with 50 points and 37 rebounds (18 offensive), but by the end of the game, the two did not have enough legs to close out the game and missed some key baskets late.
My expectation for tonight.
Tonight will be/should be the kind of game where the Thunder bench really shines. They don't even need to play lights-out the way they did in Game Two. They just need to keep taking advantage of their comparative match-ups and the Thunder should be able to weather the Grizzlies' energy storm. The Thunder don't need to play an A+ game tonight; they just need to match the energy Memphis brings. By the second half, I expect that the legs of Randolph and Gasol will feel a lot heavier than the Thunder bigs, and those two Grizzlies do not have a deep enough bench to survive long without their post-men.
Each game the Thunder play at this point is a new experience for both the players and fans, so I fully expect the OKC crowd to give the team a huge lift when they need it. And need it they will, because this series is as much about attrition as it is stills and sets.
And, of course, a little offense in the 4th.
Prediction: Thunder 101, Grizzlies 92