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Memphis Grizzlies vs Oklahoma City Thunder: 2011 NBA Semi-Finals, Game One Preview; The Next Step

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Records: The Memphis Grizzlies (46-26) vs The Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27)

Time: 12:00 PM Central Daylight Time

Place: Oklahoma City Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

TV: Turner Network Television, Fox Sports Net Oklahoma HD, SportSouth Memphis

Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1), Soul Classics 103.5 FM WRBO

Enemy Blog(s): Straight Outta Vancouver, 3 Shades of Blue

Previous Meeting(s): Jan. 4, Jan. 9, Feb. 8, March 7 (Grizzlies Won Season Series 3-1)

Thunder check-up time - are you happy the Thunder are playing the Grizzlies?

It is quite remarkable to think that the Memphis Grizzlies, hanging on by a thread to keep their 8th seed, have knocked off and all but ended the Tim Duncan dynasty in San Antonio. Yet if you watched the series, the only surprise you might have had was which one was truly the higher seed. The Grizz were quicker, stronger, smarter, and made more clutch shots than the Spurs. Despite the Spurs' amazing heroics at the end of Game Five, the series was never in doubt after the Grizz went up 3-1. If the Thunder are to avoid such a calamity themselves, they have to be aware today that losing Game One can spell bad tidings for the rest of the series.

Three things the Grizzlies do well against the Thunder:

1. Grizzlies love to steal the ball.

The Grizzlies finished in the top five in team steals this season, grabbing over seven per game. Their interior defense, led by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, is physical and punishing and can hold their own, but their perimeter defense is what sets Memphis apart. Led by Tony Allen, they can extend that perimeter defense out past the 3-point line and it completely disrupts the other team's offense.

I have vivid memories of said defense attacking the Thunder in the second halves of games. The Thunder could not adjust, and instead started throwing cross-court passes to try and alleviate the defense. Unfortunately for OKC, Memphis maximized this scenario by frequently stealing those passes and igniting the fast break the other way.

The Thunder will need to do a better job protecting the basketball if they are going to be able to take advantage of their skill positions.

2. Grizzlies love to pound the paint.

I would look for the Grizzlies to go to Zach Randolph early, because Memphis is going to want to see how Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka deal with him. This series is going to be the first true test for Ibaka. He has come a long way as a help defender, but Serge is still young and green when it comes to straight-up defensive post-play. The Thunder do have Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed waiting in the wings, but Randolph presents problems for all of them. He is equally comfortable bruising people on the inside as he is stepping out and shooting 18 foot jumpers. I would keep an eye on the foul situation.

OKC has made leaps and bounds this season in learning how to defend the paint (Perkins has helped in that area obviously) and this series is going to be a true test as to whether or not the Thunder's interior defense can deal with physical play. Fortunately for OKC, I think Kendrick Perkins is delighted that this series will likely turn on whose interior is stronger.

3. Grizzlies love to make games a test of the will.

While the Grizzlies certainly have components that are cause for the Thunder's concern (Allen, Z-Bo), the biggest advantage that I think they have is that they believe no team, despite talent advantages, can deal with their tenacity, mental focus, and resiliency. How will the Thunder respond when, after a half of playing great basketball, they find Memphis trailing by single digits? How will they respond when Tony Allen starts knocking down 4th quarter jumpers to keep Memphis in the game? What will they do defensively when Randolph starts reeling off "And-1's" that help the Grizz claw back into games? These will be the tests that OKC must pass in the series and also in this first game.

I would look for Game One to be similar to the last series - each team will feel the other out to see how the future games will shape up. If the Thunder can play from a position of the lead, I think it will alleviate the self-doubt that could happen late in the game when the Grizzlies will always be within striking distance. Let's hope we're in for another Game One treat.

Prediction: Thunder 99, Grizzlies 91