Oklahoma City Thunder 99, Memphis Grizzlies 72: 2011 Western Conference Semi-Finals Game Five; Shut-Down

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Well, that was something.

On a night where I think many of us were not sure how either team would respond after submitting one of the greatest games in NBA playoff history, I'd be willing to wager we probably weren't anticipating a blowout of this magnitude. We knew that both teams would be fatigued, we knew that emotions would be strained, and we knew that the Thunder were fortunate to have their home crowd behind them for this pivotal Game Three. 

How did Game Five Turn into a blowout?

Here is your key statistic: 50 to 33.

All series long, the Grizzlies have compensated for their deficiencies in overall talent level, offensive struggles, and bench depth by doing one thing better than any other team - get rebounds. They have dominated the Thunder throughout the series and the regular season on both the offensive and defensive boards, and it has been one of their defining traits. In Game Four, the duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol pounded the boards, collecting 18 offensive rebounds and 37 total. The rebound, more than any other statistic, defines who the Grizzlies are. Whatever they lack in style, scoring proficiency, or raw talent, they make up for it in the form of a pure desire to grab rebounds.

And tonight, they were out-rebounded by the Thunder, 50-33. 

That statistic, more than any other, encapsulates what happened tonight. Memphis wants and needs to rebound, especially in a series where they're struggling to hit 40% from the field. By the Thunder taking away that last advantage, Memphis ran out of gas quickly.

I do think both teams were very tired mentally and physically from Monday night, but the Thunder had the advantage of being able to go 10 deep with little to no drop in production. The first quarter finished in a tie at 17 and reflected what we all suspected; neither team really knew what it had left after the 3OT saga. The difference, as it has been so many times this season, was that the Thunder had no trouble keeping apace with the Grizzlies during the normal stretch at the beginning of the 2nd quarter. While Memphis was still banging away with Randolph inside and Conley outside, the Thunder bench matched them point for point. By the time the Thunder starters re-entered the game with under six to play, the score was still knotted at 28, and the Thunder immediately went on a 17-5 run that put them in the driver's seat. Memphis had nothing to counter the surge, and the beginnings of the rout was on.

If there was any doubt as to whether the Grizzlies could return the volley, the answers were quickly offered by the end of the third. By that point, Randolph had only made three field goals and would not make another the rest of the game. O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley, the Grizzlies' shot at getting perimeter production, shot a combined 6-25 for 13 points. Gasol was the lone bright spot, and he was the only man wearing blue that managed double digits. 

A final examination of my key match-ups:

Thunder

I predicted that their advantage would be in their guard play, and this turned out to be correct. Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Daequan Cook thoroughly outplayed Conley, Mayo, Tony Allen, and Vasquez. Conley was most notable in his struggles, shooting only 4-16 with three turnovers. Even when Memphis' guards were able to get free, their shots often went astray. The Thunder committed themselves to playing good interior defense and allowed Memphis to run free on the perimeter, and their guards could not make OKC pay for this decision. On top of that, the Memphis guards were slow to their spots, did not have the same quickness off the ball, and collectively turned the ball over seven times.

Defensively, the Grizzlies continued to struggle in stopping OKC's guards. Hollins tried to change things up a bit by sticking Allen on Westbrook, but this switch did not seem to bear fruit. Allen is a great one-on-one defender, but he is not the type that can stay with Westbrook. Westbrook plays in open space and is quicker than Allen; he never gave Allen a chance to get up into him and latch on. It also kind of misses the point about how to stop Westbrook; from a pure game standpoint, nobody in the league can stay in front of him. The way you take him out of his game is by having the guard he is matched against - Conley or Mayo - play an aggressive game. If Westbrook gets baited into the match-up instead of the game itself, he takes himself out. That's what we saw when he was matched up against Ty Law, and it is really the only consistently effective way of marginalizing Westbrook's talent.

Grizzlies

I predicted that their interior big men Gasol and Randolph would continue to punish Kendrick Perkins until OKC made a switch, and it looks like coach Scott Brooks figured this one out as well. Perkins logged only 21 minutes, while Nick Collison got 25 and Nazr Mohammed got 22. As a result, the Memphis big men were not able to establish anything on the inside. Randolph in particular struggled mightily. After dominating the boards in every game, the two only managed 13 total rebounds, and only one of those was offensive.

The cumulative effect of the Memphis bigs' weariness and the Thunder bench made for a sluggish boxing match where the Thunder tried to land body blows early and often. Slowly but steadily, the Grizzlies wilted. In the end, they and the rest of the team struggled to even make lay-ups.

Looking Ahead

For Game Six, I don't think anything changes. The Thunder will continue to stuff everything inside and dare Memphis to shoot. So far, so good. Let's hope OKC can close this one out on Friday and take the next step forward in their growth as a playoff team.

Random notes.

  • The added benefit of the blowout was that all of the Thunder's starting five were able to enjoy extended minutes on the bench in the 4th quarter. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant both sat out the entire period. Meanwhile, because it is Memphis' nature, they fought until almost the very end, with Randolph and Gasol continuing to work hard. I would never want a team to give up, but at this point, I do think that Lionel Hollins was wasting valuable energy that is going to be needed on Friday. The Grizz lost tonight because they had dead legs, and now heading into Game Six, the Thunder have an additional energy advantage that is going to carry over from tonight's blowout.
  • Eric Maynor scored a single point, but showcased his PG skills beautifully by tallying nine assists in 23 minutes. He was and is a big reason why the second unit seldom plays poorly.
  • In a game where motivation is found in a multitude of corners, I am eager to see how Hollins is going to motivate his troops for Friday. They will be at home and have their fans behind them, but the truth is that the Thunder have laid claim to the two things that defined Memphis this season - hustle plays and mental fortitude. The Thunder wavered early on but eventually found themselves in this area. It reminds me of a great (if profane) article written by former NFL player Nate Jackson at Deadspin. If you don't mind the language, he provides valuable insight on what great motivational coaches really do for their players.
  • We all get a reprieve, albeit likely momentary, in the never-ending discussion of the Durant-Westbrook drama. 

***

Thunder Wonder: Daequan Cook, 18 points on 6-7 shooting, including 4-5 from 3-point range.

Thunder Down Under: Nick Collison, 9 points, 10 rebounds (5 offensive), 1 steal, great defense once again on Z-Bo, holding him to 9 points.

Thunder Blunder: Thabo Sefolosha, who only managed 2 points in his 16 minutes of play. This would have been a good game for him to showcase some offense to earn back some minutes.

Thunder Plunderer: Marc Gasol, who was the only Grizzly who had even a semblance of a competent game, getting 15 points on 6-9 shooting.

Next Game: Game 6, Versus the Memphis Grizzlies, Friday, May 13th, 8:30 PM Central Daylight Time.

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