The Grizzlies are the league's forgotten team. After they went at it for two years with the "Grit and Grind" roster, it appeared as if the front office had enough. They dumped Rudy Gay's salary onto the talent-hungry Toronto Raptors, receiving a bunch of peripheral players and the washed up Tayshaun Prince in return. In essence, they made a salary dump, and it appeared as if the team was headed towards a long road of rebuilding.
Fortunately, Lionel Hollins and the Grizzlies themselves had something to say about that. They did lose a fair amount of scoring with the departure of Rudy Gay, but they more than made up for it with the addition of Tayshaun Prince's defense. He's not the defensive player of the year that he once was, but he solidifies an already menacing back court. His addition also helped the Grizzlies to re-focus on their monstrous post duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and get some great distribution from Mike Conley. When the dust had settled, the Grizz had finished the season strong, locked down home court advantage in the first round, and defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in 6 games.
Now, they face the good old Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder have seen the Grizzlies in the playoffs before, back in 2011. The series ended up going 7 games, perhaps climaxing in Game 3, when the Thunder needed 3 overtimes to shut down the Grizzlies in the grindhouse (otherwise known as the FedEx Forum). The Thunder have had some epic regular season clashes with the Grizzlies this year as well, including an overtime thriller on March 20th.
However, despite being the #1 seed and holding the historic advantage, all of the pressure is on the Thunder. As you well know, Russell Westbrook went down during Game 2 of the first round, forcing the team to make up for a player that had never been injured. At first, it looked as if they might have ball handling and scoring issues, but those concerns subsided as the series went on. The main area where they were truly effected was defense, because Westbrook was one of the team's best ball pressure guys. They eventually tried to change their entire strategy and ended up with a total loss of defensive communication.
Putting the team's recent concerns to the side, the Thunder still have other things to worry about when it comes to the Grizzlies. The Grizz really like to play big, and the Thunder haven't trotted out a totally big lineup in months, with Hasheem Thabeet effectively riding the pine during the second half of the season. Moreover, the Grizz hold the regular season advantage at 2 games to 1, with the Thunder's lone win coming right after the Rudy Gay trade.
It goes without saying that most analysts are going to pick the Grizzlies to win this series, myself included. But nothing's written until we really know, and the Thunder have more of a chance than you think. Read on for an analysis of every matchup, keys to a Thunder series victory, the complete series schedule, and a prediction.
|"The Big Burrito"
|14.1 Pts, 7.8 Reb, 4.0 Ast, 1.7 Blk
|4.2 Pts, 6.0 Reb, 1.4 Ast, 1.1 Blk
This matchup is, perhaps, the most important in the series. Kendrick Perkins had an absolutely atrocious outing against the Rockets, eventually playing himself into nothing but token minutes by the time the series was through. He pressured too much, couldn't deal with the pick and roll of Asik, and couldn't defend the drive. Here, Perk has a whole different type of foe to tango with. Gasol doesn't work off of the pick and roll, but he's got a deadly short jumper. Basically, this means that Perk will have to keep on Gasol at all times. This will be especially true because both of them are prone to epic rebounding battles, the victor of which can help determine the fate of the game. It'll be fun to watch these two go at it, but there's no question that Gasol is a more polished version of Perkins.
|15.4 Pts, 11.2 Reb, 4.1 O-Reb, 1.4 Ast
|13.2 Pts, 7.7 Reb, 2.8 O-Reb, 3.0 Blk
Here's the bad news: Serge Ibaka really struggles against the Memphis Grizzlies. Like, really struggles. He's not missing tons of shots or anything, but the ball is basically kept out of his hands for the duration of the game. He has no post game to speak of, the Grizzlies bigs don't let him get anything near the basket, and the solid all-around defense doesn't leave him open for jumpers. He's definitely going to have to work to be a factor in this series on that end. However, he's a total asset on the defensive end. The strategy he pursues against Zach Randolph is "stay close, and keep him away from the rim". As long as Ibaka can do that, he should have no problem making Randolph hurt his team offensively. It's hard to say who has the real advantage, but I'm going with Ibaka just because of his efficiency.
|8.8 Pts, 4.2 Reb, 2.3 Ast, 0.7 Stl
|28.1 Pts, 7.9 Reb, 4.6 Ast, 1.3 Blk
The downside to Tayshaun Prince has been his mediocre offensive performance, as he misses open jumpers and hasn't really emerged as a solid offensive option. On the other hand, he's excellent at moving the ball, and provides a solid level of perimeter defense. But he's not the defensive player of the year that he once was, and won't be a huge factor in Kevin Durant's performance. Durant has been the one solid rock for the Thunder amongst a myriad of poor offensive performances, and he'll really have to bring in the bacon if the Thunder are going to win this series. Prince, on the other hand, can be a really good catalyst if he has one of his rare good shooting nights, so expect him to be a factor on certain days. In any case, KD has the clear advantage.
|"Trick or Treat Tony"
|8.9 Pts, 4.6 Reb, 1.2 Ast, 1.5 Stl
|7.6 Pts, 3.9 Reb, 1.5 Ast, 1.3 Stl
Yeah, this is basically the most boring matchup ever. And it normally doesn't mean anything. You've got two really defense-oriented shooting guards that like to chuck up threes and not much else. The only way I could see this matchup really making an effect is if one of two things happens. For one, if Allen pressures on Durant a lot, it could open up opportunities for Sefolosha. For two, if Jerryd Bayless is subbed in at shooting guard, then the Grizzlies would have a serious starting lineup advantage. (More on that below.). In any case, I'm giving the matchup to Allen, because he's been a more consistent shooter in the playoffs.
|Mike Conley, Jr.
|14.6 Pts, 2.8 Reb, 6.1 Ast, 2.2 Stl
|5.3 Pts, 2.4 Reb, 1.7 Ast
When the Thunder played during the regular season, this matchup was always a fun one to watch. Both Russell Westbrook and Mike Conley would jack up a lot of shots, hit a few, and basically totally cancel out each others' production. But with Russell Westbrook gone, the pressure is on Reggie Jackson to do the same. Mike Conley is a very dangerous player, with the ability to slide into the Thunder's defense through some mean Marc Gasol pick and rolls. He mostly loves to nail the mid-range jumper, and can often be the only Grizz player who will ever go out on the break. Jackson has the size to defend Conley, but he was frequently abused by sly point guards like Aaron Brooks in the Houston series. However, Jackson does have the offensive game to equal Conley, with an array of reliable floaters and mid-range shots in his arsenal. Still, I just don't think his production is going to eclipse Conley's on a regular basis.
|6.1 Pts, 2.9 Reb, 1.2 O-Reb, 0.6 Blk
|5.1 Pts, 59% FG, 4.1 Reb, 1.5 Ast
Darrell Arthur was absent from two of the Grizzlies' matchups with the Thunder this season, so we don't have a huge sample size of his play. Moreover, he was injured for the entire duration of the 2011-2012 season. Suffice to say, Arthur is an animal all his own. He has the ability to shoot from pretty much anywhere on the court, and has been known to nail down threes and slide over to shooting guard. On the other hand, he has the size to compete in the lane, and loves to get to the basket on pick and rolls. He not terribly efficient on a consistent basis though, which can lead to up and down games for him. Nick Collison is a contrast to that, because he's a solid rock of offensive efficiency. He had a bad shooting performance during Game 3 of the Rockets series, but that happened because he was left out to dry. With the loss of Westbrook, he's gotten more aggressive offensively overall, and he could definitely be a factor in this series. He might see some time against Randolph if Ibaka is struggling, but he might have a hard time keeping up with Arthur's jumpers. This matchup is really up in the air, but it goes to Arthur because he's just more explosive.
|Quincy Pondexter, Keyon Dooling
|Kevin Martin, DeAndre Liggins
|"K-Mart", "The Big Ticket"
|QP: 6.4 Pts, 40% 3PT, 2.2 Reb, 1.0 Ast
KD: 4.4 Pts, 41.7% 3PT, 1.1 Ast
|KM: 14.0 Pts, 43% 3PT, 2.3 Reb, 1.4 Ast
DL: 1.5 Pts, 1.4 Reb, 44.7% FG
Both the Thunder and the Rockets have seen some interesting additions to their bench wing units in recent times. Keyon Dooling was in quasi-retirement and working in the Celtics' front office when the Grizzlies signed him to play. He turned out to be a much needed three point shooter and an excellent defender. The Thunder, similarly, got DeAndre Liggins out of nowhere. He was cut from the Magic last season and barely made the Thunder roster in training camp. But he played some solid pinch minutes in a few rare regular season matchups, and answered the call when the Thunder needed him in the playoffs. He's very different from Dooling in other areas, though. He's only in his second year out of college, and has nothing resembling a three point shot. Instead, he has to rely on off-ball cuts into the lane to get consistent points on offense. Defensively, he's a quick and physical guy who can give any matchup problems.
Pondexter and Martin, unlike Dooling and Liggins, are huge offensive factors towards their team's success. Both of them do pretty much nothing but shoot, and both could easily turn the tide with a good performance. They still have their differences, though. Pondexter is a better defender, and works best as a catch and shoot player. Kevin Martin is probably the better overall shooter, and has a better ability off the dribble. Martin did struggle in the Houston series before a Game 6 revival though, so he could hurt the Thunder just as much as he helps. Still, at the end of the day, the Thunder have more talent, so they win the matchup.
Backup Point Guards:
|8.7 Pts, 2.2 Reb, 3.3 Ast, 0.7 Stl
|5.3 Pts, 93% FT, 1.1 Reb, 1.4 Ast
Jerryd Bayless is a Thunder killer. The guy exceeded his averages every time he played against the Thunder this season. Lionel Hollins knows it, and that's why Bayless started against the Thunder as a two guard back in March. When Bayless is on the floor with Mike Conley, he's extremely good at working off the ball. He has the quickness and presence to run to the right spots on the floor for open shots, and he'll often burn the pressure-heavy Thunder D for easy and efficient points. It's hard to know whether he'll be effective in this series, because the Thunder are moving away from the heavy pressure. But, he'll still likely be going up against guys like Martin and Fisher, so he should be able to continue as the rock of offensive production for the Grizzly bench. Derek Fisher? Well, he knows how to perform when it counts. In the first round, he was a reliable three point shooter, and has the basketball IQ to avoid silly turnovers. He's also got the ability to strip the ball from bigger players, and take charges at opportune times. On the other hand, he's old, has no athleticism, and is only a mediocre point guard, at best. In any case, Memphis has the definite advantage.
Bottom of the Bench:
|Ed Davis, Austin Daye, Tony Wroten, Jon Leuer
|Hasheem Thabeet, Ronnie Brewer, Daniel Orton, Jeremy Lamb
|"Ed", "The Bench Mobster", "Stay Ready and You Never Have to Get Ready", "Salary Dump"
|"Hasheem the Dream", "Corey Brewer", "Didn't That Guy Go to Bishop McGuinness?", "Lamb Rover"
These guys are the bottom of the bench, and aren't usually in the regular rotation. On the Thunder, the most likely player to be used is Hasheem Thabeet, because he provides extra size to tango with the big Grizzlies in the paint. I wouldn't expect anything beyond 5-10 minutes though, because the Grizzlies don't have the depth to go totally big all of the time. On the Grizzlies, the most likely player to be used is Ed Davis. He provides additional size in the paint for the Grizzlies, and they give him token minutes in some games. He mostly likes to hang low for offensive rebounds and cut to the basket. Most of the Thunder's players are unproven, so Memphis has the advantage here.
Reg. Season: 214-201
Reg. Season: 234-147
1 Western Conference Championship
Lionel Hollins has never been beyond this stage of the playoffs, but it's not because of a lack of competence. He managed to revive the Grizzlies after a mid-season trade with remarkably little turnaround, make scoring bigs work in the NBA, and establish one of the league's toughest defenses. He knows how and when to sub the right guys in. Brooks, on the other hand, has really struggled adjusting to the lack of Russell Westbrook on the team, and made a number of other errors in the series against the Rockets. He might have something figured out for this series, but for now, the advantage has to go to Lionel.
Keys to the Series:
1. Establish the Superior Offense.
I know I railed against Scott Brooks for basically trusting the game to his superior offense against the Rockets. But against the Grizzlies, it's the right thing to do. If you grit and grind against them in the paint, then you're on their level. On the other hand, if you're forcing transition, grabbing easy points, and nailing shots, then you're putting the Grizzlies out of their element, and running their bigs ragged. Basically, the Thunder need to pressure and run.
2. Contain the X-Factor.
The Grizzlies have a few guys who can really step up and have offensively efficient nights. You know, guys like Bayless, Pondexter, and Prince. If any of these guys are scoring too easily, then the Thunder need to make sure that they're not leaving these guys open. I know that pressure is key, but it might make sense to throttle back a bit if one of these guys is having a good night.
3. Keep the Ball Movement Going.
The Grizzlies, simply put, don't have a defensive weakness. They have pretty much all of the bases covered. Thus, the best strategy isn't to challenge them one on one. The Thunder need to keep the ball moving, and not settle for constant isolations. As long as they can get the ball to open shooters, let Kevin Durant do his thing, and find space for Ibaka and Martin, they should be okay. Easier said than done, but it's not going to get done if the Thunder stand around and let teammates hang out to dry.
4. Establish a Defensive Strategy and Stick To It.
This isn't so much a Grizzlies-specific strategy as it is something the Thunder need to do. Scott Brooks needs to re-establish his defensive identity, and this series would be the perfect place to do it. Whether the strategy is strict man-to-man or furious amounts of switching and pressure, Brooks needs to decide. Small adjustments are okay, but game-to-game wholesale changes like he made in the Houston series are a huge no no, and a one-way ticket to defensive disorientation.
5. Win the Battle of the Boards.
This one isn't absolutely essential, but it's something that could swing the tide. Historically, it's had no bearing on the result, but the Grizzlies have some really mean offensive rebounders, and the Thunder have had some really bad offensive rebounding performances in the past. Thus, the Thunder need to make sure that the Grizz aren't consistently killing them in that area, because it's one area where the Grizz could really open up their offense. In other words: Please, don't play small.
The Grizzlies win in 6. I really hate making this prediction, but based on what I've seen out of the Thunder over the past four games, they've got a lot to prove right now. I'm not saying the Thunder can't win this series, but I've got to base this series off of what's happened, not what the teams could do. And based on the level these teams are at right now, the Grizzlies simply look better. They were able to exploit certain matchups for victories in the regular season, despite decreased production from their stars in some instances. And with the Thunder's big men core in turmoil, it's just not looking good from the Thunder perspective. I really hope I'm wrong, but the Grizzlies will probably meet the Spurs in the Conference Finals this year. But I'm sure we all have something to say about that.
How do you think the series will go? Vote in the poll, post a comment!