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Thunder vs Grizzlies: Three Lingering Thoughts Regarding 2011 NBA Semi-Finals Game Three

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As the NBA world seems to have decided to collectively panic over the Thunder's 4th quarter meltdown, here are a few random musings that I have been considering as we get ready for tonight's huge Game Four. 

1. The fourth quarter collapse will be series-defining, but we do not yet know in which direction.

To be sure, the way the Thunder fell apart in the final seven minutes of play in Game Three was painful. It was painful to watch, and I'm sure it was painful to experience. It was kind of like one of those local news reporter FAIL scenes. You know it is happening, you can see how the disaster is going to end, and yet when it finally culminates, there is still a sense of frustration and disappointment, even as we all know that the Grizzlies thoroughly outplayed the Thunder when it mattered the most.

Of course, we haven't seen anything as epic as Saturday's collapse in the NBA landscape in what feels like forever, but in reality it was only 17 days ago. Oh yeah. Remember that game? It was the game where the fragile and soft Dallas Mavericks were finally supposed to succumb to the gritty and inspired play of the hobbled but not lost Portland Trail Blazers. Dallas actually lost a 23 point lead in the second half, 18 of which happened in the 4th quarter alone. The loss was completely demoralizing, and Dallas decided to head for the off-season early.

Except, of course, they didn't. Instead, Dallas stayed committed to its core competencies (defense, rebounding, 4th quarter execution) and won the next two games and finished off the Blazers. Because of the way the NBA is played, game-to-game momentum is a bit of a myth. There are so many possessions in an NBA game  (unlike football or college basketball), that pre-game momentum is usually digested by the end of the 1st quarter.  It is rare that a team's decimation (on either side) in one game carries over to the next. 

So tonight, the Thunder are simply faced with their next big challenge of these playoffs. What is beautiful about it is that the tests the Thunder have faced so far are not at all irregular. Here are the big lessons of which the Thunder have had to deal:

  1. Star player shoots team out of game (Game 4 vs Nuggets). (See: Kobe, D-Rose, among others)
  2.  Team caught flat footed against upstart underdog in Game One (Game 1 vs Grizzlies). (See: 2011 Lakers, 2010 Celtics)
  3. 4th quarter offense falls apart (Game 3 vs Grizzlies). (See: 2011 Mavs, 2011 Celtics)
In other words, the shortcomings that the Thunder have had are some of the most common hurdles that playoff teams must face. They are some of the most basic hurdles that test every championship-caliber team's resolve. The collapse was disappointing, indeed, but it was just a matter of time before a loss of that type occurred. A weak-minded team allows a collapse to define them; a strong-minded team keeps the good, shucks the bad, and wins the next game.

If the Thunder lose tonight, it will not be because of Saturday's collapse. It will be because they get outplayed by the Grizzlies. Which is to say, losing is always a possibility, but then so is winning.

2. James Harden Is the Antidote.

I am trying to avoid the cliche of naming a player as an "X-factor," but well, James Harden is kind of an X-factor. In Game One, Harden resorted to his early season passiveness and barely raised a blip on the radar, and the Thunder lost. In Game Two, Harden came out of the gates super-aggressive, and as a result pulled off one of his now semi-standard "21 points off of nine shots" kind of game. Harden is at his best when he is in attack mode because he is both tall and strong and is not afraid to take the ball to the rim. Yes, he is known for knocking down clutch 3-pointers, and he has shot the ball well. However, the thing he does well that causes the most problems for defenses is get into the lane and draw contact. When Harden is playing at his most aggressive, usually half of his points come at the free throw line.  

As we all know, the offense disappeared late in the 4th. The Thunder were going for maximum defense to try and stop the Grizzlies, featuring a line-up of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Thabo Sefolosha. For the most part, their defense was working. However, the offense was terrible, and you can find a plethora of reasons why wherever you look. Regardless of why the offense was terrible, what was more important was the fact that coach Scott Brooks did not take any measures to add some offense when offense was most dearly needed. Even a mediocre quarter gives the Thunder the win.

And yet, the line-up remained in its defensive alignment. During the most crunch of crunch times, the Thunder featured an offense that really only had two shot-makers - Durant and Westbrook. Yes, Serge Ibaka can make shots when open, but they were not looking Ibaka's way. At a time when one single additional bucket = win, the Thunder never adjusted their line-up so that they were playing something more than "two on five" offensive sets.

On top of that, one of the reasons why Westbrook could not get better looks was precisely because Harden was on the bench. Grizz coach Lionel Hollins made the wise choice to take away Westbrook's advantages over  the smaller  Mike Conley by moving Conley over to guard Sefolosha, and stuck  O.J. Mayo on Westbrook. The net result was that the stronger Mayo was able to check Westbrook in the post while Conley could essentially ignore the offensively passive Sefolosha, and Conley's defensive short-comings were effectively hidden. If Brooks had come back with Harden to replace of Sefolosha, Hollins would have been faced with a very difficult decision - does he keep Mayo on Westbrook but leave Conley to try and guard Harden, who is even bigger and stronger than Westbrook? Or does he switch them back, which would again give Westbrook the advantage?  Unfortunately we did not get the answer to this question until it was too late.

While Brooks still struggles with in-game adjustments, I do think that this type of assessment will be easily apparent in between games. When the offense stagnates, I would expect to see more of James Harden in the game to take the pressure off of Durant and Westbrook. OKC has struggled all season with its 4th quarter close-outs, and unfortunately that trend is not likely to change at this late of a date. There are no magic plays waiting to be drawn up. However, what they can do is adjust the personnel so that the Thunder have more scorers and skilled decision-makers in the games when the shots and decisions matter the most.

3. The defense is still the Way.

As the 4th quarter was winding down and Memphis was staging its furious comeback, it would be easy to conclude that the Grizzlies offense was practically unstoppable. However, this was not exactly the case. Yes, the Grizzlies scored more points in the 4th than any other in the game, but that point total came to a grand total of 23. Despite the Thunder offense going into the toilet and the Grizzlies offense finding new mojo, the Thunder D still held them to only 23 points, and without a single point in the final 1:47. In the Grizzlies' final 4th quarter possession, the Thunder forced Memphis into a 25 foot contested 3-point attempt by Zach Randolph, which I'd be willing to wager was not how that play was drawn up. The Thunder defense got the job done in all four quarters.

After Game Two's win, I postulated that the Grizzlies would have to make some offensive adjustments if they were to challenge the Thunder in Game 3. The Grizzlies' problems were:

  1. No space for Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol to work;
  2. A perimeter-oriented offense that was too pedestrian to prevail.
I honestly don't think either of those issues were dealt with in an effective way. To wit:
  1. Randolph and Marc Gasol combined to shoot 12-36 for 37 points.
  2. A Memphis guard-heavy offense produced one decent player, as Conley finished 8-15 for 18 points, one adequate player, as Mayo shot 6-18 for 18 points, and everyone else, who shot 8-21. 
In other words, the Thunder defense once again prohibited the Grizzlies from doing the one thing that they do well (get easy scores in the post) and made the Grizzlies beat them from the perimeter, which had mixed results at best. Yes, Mayo got more minutes and more touches, but he doesn't really scare me on offense. Conley has proven to be a very good point guard in this series, but he has met the limits of his current ability; he does not likely have another 10 points of offense in him. I think Brooks should still be willing to live and die with Mayo and Conley taking 18 shots a game a piece if it means the two Memphis bigs are shooting 33% from the floor. 

I was despondent after Game One. The Grizzlies looked like world-beaters and the Thunder over-matched, both physically and mentally. The Thunder eased those nerves by what they did in Game Two. Now, after a Game Three loss, I have to say that I am not troubled as I was last week. I know via the evidence of the last two games that the Thunder have the talent and heart to beat the Grizzlies. Regardless of what happens, I can enjoy the process the Thunder are going through, because they are growing and evolving on the fly. Because I've seen this growth in every single game, I do believe that tonight will not be the last time OKC Plays in Memphis this spring.