On one end of the first round playoff matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies, it'll be an elite offense taking on an elite defense. That'd be where the Thunder try to score on the Grizzlies. With a 108.1 offensive rating (points scored per 100 possession) per NBA.com, the Thunder rank 7th in the NBA in that category. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies rank 7th (tied with the Los Angeles Clippers) in defensive rating with a 102.7 rating. Since defensive anchor Marc Gasol's return from a MCL sprain that kept him out for nearly two months, the Grizzlies' defensive rating improved to 99.7, which ranks second in the league in that timeframe.
Ha. So we have an interesting matchup.
With the Grizzlies' defense, Scott Brooks has a difficult puzzle to solve. His usual offensive strategy is called 'let Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook steamroll their opponents." It won't be so easy against the Grizzlies, who have elite defenders seemingly from top to bottom. Gasol was last season's Defensive Player of the Year, but Tony Allen, Mike Conley, Tayshaun Prince and James Johnson all have the capability to cause a disruption in the Durant and Westbrook steamrolling plan.
Attacking the Strong-Side Overload
The Grizzlies overload the strong-side defensively, and Gasol plays a 'rover' role on defense where he sometimes freely roams across the paint to provide help defense and deter drives. You see this sort of thing regularly:
As the Thunder know from their own pack-the-paint defense, which is very similar but less aggressive in shifting players over to the strong-side, the way these types of defense get burned is outside shooting, especially from the weak-side. Unfortunately, that's one off the table for the Thunder. Spot-up three-point shooting has been a major area of inconsistency this season. Jeremy Lamb actually started to pick up the pieces of his shattered three-point shot late in the season, but I doubt he's reliable enough right now for Brooks to play him. That leaves Derek Fisher, Thabo Sefolosha, and on good nights, Reggie Jackson. Barring a random night where Fisher catches fire, which has happened enough times this season that it might be the weirdest part of the whole year, that group won't make enough of a positive difference.
The second best way to beat the Grizzlies defense is to rely on passing and getting the ball side-to-side across the court. Where they overload the strong-side, they'll be vulnerable on the weak-side. If the Thunder can get the ball to the opposite of the court quickly enough, then there will be a window for them to attack where the Grizzlies are recovering. This specifically is the benefit of having multiple players able to attack from the perimeter in Durant, Westbrook and Jackson.
A tie-in here is that the Grizzlies are likely to defend Durant with multiple defenders (even if not intentionally, he's a guy that directs attention anyway). It's a good strategy to take the ball out of Durant's hands and force someone a bit more volatile to carry the team. Westbrook is obviously a great offensive player, but he's also more of a wild-card from possession-to-possession than Durant.
What the Thunder can do is use Durant as a decoy to force the defense into a recovery that Westbrook or Jackson can attack when he gets the pass. Using a pick-and-roll to set up a second pick-and-roll or even a spot-up guy driving on the catch on the opposite side works very well. The Thunder orchestrate that sort of action from time to time, and it'd be effective in this series.
Here, a Durant pick-and-roll sucks in the defense and Jackson easily gets by Jeremy Lin on the close-out. Terrence Jones does a good job of getting in the way and preventing anything easier, but there's still enough space for Jackson to get off his pretty floater.
Dealing with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph
A different aspect for the Thunder to consider is how to approach the Grizzlies' frontcourt. Gasol is great, obviously, and it'll be hard to get anything going at the rim with him protecting it. Dragging him away from the paint will make things significantly easier for guys like Westbrook and Jackson attacking the rim.
The Thunder will have to consider matchups and react accordingly. I'd guess Gasol would spend most of his time on Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams, non-threats that he can roam off of. That makes things more difficult, since the respect for those guys isn't there offensively. Perkins has a niche function as a high-post channel for the ball (I'm hesitant to call him a facilitator when Gasol opposite him is the golden standard for high-post facilitating), and using him in sets like horns will stretch Gasol out as far as he's willing to go. Alternatively, use Perkins to set picks. It might be the thing he does best, if you don't mind the illegal screen calls. Gasol sags against pick-and-rolls, but there's good ways to score against that still and it's easier to work around Gasol sagging against the pick-and-roll instead of providing help defense right at the rim.
Things get easier if Gasol defends Ibaka, which was a matchup the Grizzlies did go with in the regular season at times. Ibaka operates nine times out of ten in the midrange, and just having him spot up somewhere 18 feet out would give Gasol difficult decisions to make.
Why would the Grizzlies willingly take Gasol off of Perkins? The alternative is Zach Randolph, who is as slow and as bad a shot-blocker as 6'9" and 260 lbs sounds like. It's almost sad how exploitable he is when he's taken out of the paint and into situations like, say, Ibaka pick-and-pops
(Perkins-esque). Like, that's something you could go to every time down the court.
RUUUUUUUUUUN Z-BO RUUUUUUUUUUN.
Something I'd like the Thunder to try is the Ibaka-Nick Collison frontcourt pairing. Collison's minutes have been trending down all season long so it might not be likely as a regular option, but against Gasol and Randolph, having two bigs that can spend entire possessions in the midrange instead of the post is valuable. Both Collison and Ibaka can shoot the midrange jumper and work as screeners, and Collison even mixes in some nice high-post passing for what that's worth. Collison and Ibaka only appeared together in two of the four regular season games against the Grizzlies for 14 minutes overall, but I'm saying it's definitely a thing that should happen more.
After all, you're not getting this kind of spacing with any other frontcourt configuration featuring two Thunder big men (Ibaka's in the far corner).
Force Turnovers, Get Out in Transition
The Thunder are 9th in the NBA in pace, playing 97.9 possessions per 48 minutes, while the Grizzlies are dead last playing a pace of 92.3. The Thunder have athletic freaks that dominate the open-court, including Westbrook, Durant, Jackson and Ibaka. The Grizzlies have Randolph and Gasol lugging their way up and down the court. This one is a pretty obvious advantage for the Thunder, and they'll exercise it as long they don't let the Grizzlies establish their ground-and-pound tempo into games.
The best way to get out in transition is to cause turnovers. The Thunder were above average when it came to creating turnovers, tying for 12th in the NBA with a 15.4% opponent turnover percentage. When it comes to length and sheer activity on defense, few teams can match the Thunder. Against the Grizzlies, it's even more important for the Thunder to make use of those attributes. With non-shooters like Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen logging big minutes for the Grizzlies, the Thunder should have plenty of leash to lurk in the passing lanes. This is definitely one of the opponents to be aggressive in jumping for steals against, because they don't have the shooting to make you pay for it.
A Word on Turnovers
The Thunder have had issues all year long with turnovers of their own, tying for 9th in the league with a 15.6% team turnover percentage. Against the Grizzlies' defense, which features their own passing lane hounds in Tony Allen and Mike Conley, turnovers are definitely going to happen. The Thunder lack spot-up shooters themselves, putting them in a similar situation to the Grizzlies in that regard.
If this series turns into a defensive battle predicated around causing turnovers and being disruptive, the Grizzlies will probably win it. Turnovers are going to happen, but the Thunder have to play hard. Too many turnovers were brought about by lazy play, whether it was a Jackson pass thrown too hard or Durant trying to slip a pass that wasn't there. Perkins is a living illegal screen, but apart from that, the Thunder have to do what they can to limit their own mistakes and let themselves win the series with their superior offense.
No matter what the Thunder do to work around the Grizzlies' defense, it'll be a difficult matchup. Facing Gasol and the abundance of perimeter defenders on the Grizzlies means adjustments for the Thunder, and adjustments mean the team doesn't necessarily get to do what it wants to do or does best. Any elite or even good defense requires adjustments to be made, but I'm not sure many defenses match up as well against the Thunder as the Grizzlies do.
Still, the Thunder have two of the best offensive talents in the entire league as well as a one of its best midrange shooters, a boon in this specific matchup. The means for them to beat the Grizzlies' defense is there. It just has to be done properly, and that'll be on Scott Brooks and his staff to manage properly.