One more game.
Yes, the NBA season is coming to a close and we have reached the last day of the regular season. Amazingly, the seedings are not yet set in stone. The Thunder, among several other teams, have not have their seeds secured. The Los Angeles Clippers sit just 1 game behind OKC. If the Thunder win against the Pistons on Wednesday or the Clippers lose to Portland, the Thunder will be the 2nd spot in the Western Conference playoffs. If the 2 spot is secured, OKC's first round matchup will be between either the Memphis Grizzlies or the Dallas Mavericks. Remarkably, the Memphis Grizzlies who are known for their inside game and defense, will be facing off with the Dallas Mavericks, a team of veteran shooters with a little help from a guy called Dirk Nowitzki, tonight to help determine the 1st round matchup.
What is one of the Thunder's biggest struggles? The answer: guarding the perimeter. Even the return of Oklahoma's best perimeter defender, Thabo Sefolosha, has not saved them completely from failing to contest three pointers. Which is why I cannot stress how important snatching the 2 spot is for the Thunder by winning against Detroit tonight. If the Thunder somehow finish 3rd, they will have to play against the Warriors, who with the Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (not to mention Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Jordan Crawford, and even newcomer Steve Blake) represent the most frightening 3-point hunters the league has. Playing the Warriors could be the downfall of OKC, bBut before we get into all of this playoff junk, let's do a quick year in review and then examine the most likely playoff opponents, the Mavericks and Grizzlies.
Quick Year in Review
I'll try to make this short and sweet.
The season started off great. Russell Westbrook returned quickly from a knee surgery and the gang was back together and healthy. That was until Westbrook learned that rushing things take their toll. Westbrook went down once again after Christmas. "Uh-oh," is what nearly ever Thunder fan said. OKC fell apart to the Grizzlies last playoffs without the point guard. However, that was before Kevin Durant began his personal mission. In the month of January, Kevin Durant went on a tear, averaging nearly 40 PPG. In that span, the Thunder were playing out of their minds and KD was pulling away from Lebron James in the MVP race. Westbrook returned in February but later, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins hurt themselves around the same time, throwing the bench rotations off and the defense as well. To finish it off, the Thunder are still battling some issues, but with Kevin Durant headed to his first MVP, the Thunder look strong for the playoffs.
Let's turn to the first round of the playoffs.
Potential Opponent #1: Memphis Grizzlies
Game 2: Grizzlies defeat Thunder, 90-87
Game 3: Thunder defeat Grizzlies, 86-77
The Memphis Grizzlies have won just 1 game out of 4 vs. OKC this season. Memphis is lead by the electric guard Mike Conley, the rebounding menace, Zach Randolph, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, a phenomenal guard defender, Tony Allen, and the veteran, Tayshaun Prince. The Memphis Grizzlies are a team of defense and not so much offense. They rank 27th in points per game but 3rd in points allowed per game. Memphis has won 4 in a row and likely looking to avoid the Spurs in the first round.
To learn more about the Grizzlies, I turned to a fellow WTLC writer, Kevin Yeung, who also writes for the Grizzlies' site, Grizzly Bear Blues.
What are some strengths and some weaknesses of the Grizzlies?
It starts with their defense. They have the shut-down scheme and the shut-down guys to contain just about any team. OKC is particularly talented offensively, but don't underestimate what Memphis has. Other strengths include rebounding, post scoring and P&R scoring.
Who will be the X-Factor in the playoffs for the Grizzlies?
You could name practically any bench player as an x-factor since Dave Joerger has been a bit unpredictable in his rotations. Mike Miller is a honorable mention, but I'll go with Tony Allen, who plays really out of control (sometimes to his benefit) and has been hit-or-miss lately.
How can the Grizzlies win against the Thunder?
They'll have to do what they can to contain them on defense (there's no containing Kevin Durant), and grind them out in the post. Serge Ibaka has crazy arms, but Zach Randolph has crazy bulk and that wears guys down. If the Thunder go small, and in the playoffs where rotations get cut short to include the best of a team's players, they probably will go small often, the Grizzlies can exercise a size advantage.
What strategies do you think the Grizzlies will do to defeat a team like the Thunder?
On offense, they largely rely on post play, the pick-and-roll, and offensive rebounding. Expect those plays to be be heavily featured. Defensively, Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince are very good defenders but it might take double-teams and some aggressive lurking in the passing lanes to fully prevent guys like KD from taking over.
What would be the downfall of the Grizzlies?
They can't shoot from outside, giving OKC's swarmy defense which can sink deep and recover out to the three-point line even more of a leash. The Grizzlies would have to be extremely deliberate in their spacing, and even then, they might not have the shooters to stagger a Thunder defense that can be very overwhelming.
Who/What has been the reason for the Grizzlies' success in the regular season?
They have a deep bench, and the core of Mike Conley/Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol has fought tremendously since Marc's return from injury. A strong defense and a decent-enough offense has allowed for an empowered run from the lower-end of the standings all the way to the playoffs.
Would you like to see a Thunder/Grizzlies matchup in the playoffs?
For the Grizzlies, yes. The San Antonio Spurs are instant death for any lower seed (but especially for the Grizzlies, who just seem to be unable to beat the Spurs), and maybe for any team other than the Thunder. If I was OKC, I'd probably prefer Dallas and their painfully exploitable defense. Memphis isn't a terrible matchup for them, though. OKC-MEM is historically ugly basketball with some pushing and shoving on the side, but it's one that OKC has typically won (last year's playoffs being an exception since it was without Russ).
Potential Opponent #2: Dallas Mavericks
Game 1: Thunder defeat Mavericks, 107-93
Game 2: Mavericks defeat Thunder, 109-86
The Dallas Mavericks won the regular season series between the Thunder, 2-1. What scares me the most about this team is not only the German dude who won't ever fade away (unless he's shooting that one-legged fadeaway), but also their stellar three point shooting has torched the Thunder twice. Unlike the Grizzlies, the Mavericks are killer from behind the arc, shooting 38.6 percent and averaging almost 9 per game. Lead by veterans Dirk Nowitzki, who is having a phenomenal season (every season is outstanding with Dirk) and Monta Ellis, the Mavericks are a dangerous, offensive minded squad with a strong bench. What kills them is their defense. Ranked one of the worst in the NBA, the Mavericks' defense tends to get sloppy and lazy (sound familiar?).
To learn more about the Mavericks from an experts standpoint, I reached out to Tim Cato, the guy in charge over at Mavs Moneyball to feed me some insight about this shining squad.
What are some strengths and some weaknesses of the Mavericks?
Sometimes, it's as simple as offense and defense. The Mavericks boast the third-best offensive rating in the league, boosting by incredibly efficient 3-point shooting (38.6 percent), strong bench play and the brilliance of Dirk Nowitzki. However, the offense is offset by its defense, ninth worst in the league. In the entire nine-man rotation, only two can truly be described as "plus" defenders (Shawn Marion, Devin Harris).
Who will be the X-Factor in the playoffs for the Mavericks?
Lots of options, but I'll say Brandan Wright. Although he's been a rotation player ever since returning from injury, he still struggles against strong offensive post players. However, if he can handle Perkins and Ibaka, his finishing around the basket and weak-side shot blocking provide the Mavericks with skills no one else provides.
How can the Mavericks win against a team like the Thunder?
Force the Thunder bench players into important roles when they are on the floor -- i.e., attack them on defense or make them shoot on offense. Dallas has an excellent bench unit, but they have to take advantage of that mismatch (it's one of the few the Mavs hold).
What strategies do you think the Mavericks will do to defeat a team like the Thunder?
In the last two wins, Durant still got his, but we saw harsh double teams on him that gave him no option but to pass. I'd expect to see more of that.
What would be the downfall of the Mavericks?
Their defense turning the Oklahoma City offense into a layup line.
Who/What has been the reason for the Mavericks' success in the regular season?
Tons of people playing exceptionally in their role -- which I give head coach Rick Carlisle credit for -- and some ridiculous basketball still being played by that 35-year-old German.
Would you like to see a Thunder/Mavericks matchup in the playoffs?
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I don't think the Mavericks will win the series, but it would be a fun, back-and-forth six games. More importantly, it would mean avoiding the death machines known as San Antonio and Los Angeles (Mavs are 1-7 against those two teams this season). Plus, Oklahoma City is just a couple hours north. I'm planning on making that drive up to cover at least one of the road games if that's the match-up. So let's throw it back to 2012 and have another I-35 showdown, what do you guy say?
Big thanks to Kevin and Tim. Both teams would be a challenge for the Thunder, it all depends on who wins Wednesday night. You can watch the deciding game between the Grizzlies and Mavericks tonight at 7 PM CDT.
For Now... THUNDER UP!