|2014 NBA Playoffs, Round 1|
|April 26th, 2014|
|The Fedex Forum, Memphis, Tennessee|
|8:30 PM Central Daylight Time|
|TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, SportSouth|
|Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM/640 AM), 92.5 FM ESPN|
|Injury Report: Nick Calathes (Suspended)|
|Previous Matchups: Game 1 (W, 100-86), Game 2 (L, 105-111), Game 3 (L, 95-98)|
|Russell Westbrook||PG||Mike Conley, Jr.|
|Thabo Sefolosha||SG||Tony Allen|
|Kevin Durant||SF||Tayshaun Prince|
|Serge Ibaka||PF||Zach Randolph|
|Kendrick Perkins||C||Marc Gasol|
In 2011, it's where the long-lost trio of Durant, Harden, and Westbrook led the team past Memphis in a triple-OT thriller. The win tied the series 2-2, and gave them a serious shot at the Western Conference Finals.
In 2013, it's where the Thunder rode KD to ruin as they slowly faded away in overtime, ending their playoff run.
Today, it will be where the Thunder's legacy is defined. They've split their playoff battles with the Grizzlies over the past couple of years, and this series is likely the last one that these teams will play. ZBo and Gasol are getting up there in years, and it's hard to see them being the offensive focal point of the Grizzlies for long.
But tonight, they're still on center stage. And it's going to be awesome to see the OKC's interior D to try and hold Memphis' big men just enough for the Thunder to get the W. Zach Randolph has only had one good outing so far, with the other two games being poorly shot disasters. Gasol has been pretty consistently decent, as his family name would indicate. But Kendrick Perkins has had his share of success stopping Gasol in the paint, particularly at key times.
A storyline to watch on that front will be the minutes given to the Thunder's bench. Scott Brooks has been heavily criticized throughout this series for his lineup management, but he's been particularly puzzling when dealing with the front court. Thabeet and Adams played solid minutes in Game 1 to a positive effect, and the Thunder did well to play with a big lineup in that game. But Brooks has gone small, with KD at power forward, for a significant amount of time in Games 2 and 3. According to Zach Lowe, in the 39 minutes of small ball that the Thunder have played over the last three games, they've acquired a 2 point deficit.
Part of the problem on that front is the Thunder's unwillingness to exploit mismatches and give their role players offensive responsibility. Durant and Westbrook basically took over the second-half offense in Game 3, and they weren't exactly unjustified in doing so. OKC's bench lacked playmakers with Reggie Jackson's disappearance, and nobody had a hot hand. Of course, by the end of the game, Perk and Sefolosha were running around the floor virtually unguarded, so it's kind of hard to justify some of the shots that Russ and KD were taking.
Defensively, the Thunder need to focus on capitalizing on blocks, steals, and long rebounds. Also, they need to find a way to shut down Beno Udrih. It's unlikely that he'll have a third straight sublime shooting performance, and even KevinHFY admits as much. But the Thunder still have some serious problems dealing with quick shooters coming off of screens, and Reggie Jackson really needs to find a way to step up his game. Without a playmaker, the Thunder's second-team offense is dead in the water.
Of course, the biggest name that Thunder fans should be worried about on the Memphis roster is Mike Conley. He wears a hat of real wood, and has pretty much destroyed his regular season averages in every game against Oklahoma City this season. But he was successfully stagnated in the fourth quarter of Thursday's game, as described by Steve Danziger of 3 Shades of Blue:
"Oklahoma City trapping on screens - The 4th quarter stagnation was an abomination in Game 3, and this was largely the culprit. The Grizzlies tried desperately to get Mike Conley some space through the pick and roll/pop, and the Thunder were having none of it. It felt as if the Grizz were stuck within a continuous loop of attempting a high screen, Conley getting caught in a trap, the shot clock winding down, and Zach Randolph or TA being stuck hoisting up an unheralded attempt at the buzzer. When opposing teams can successfully deny Conley space, and stifle his penetration early in the clock, it makes it easier for them to keep the bigs out of the play, and the Grizzlies are exposed for their lack of contingency plan on offense. The Grizz must have a plan-B to keep the offense fluid (as fluid as can be, at least) and prevent the ball from sticking, this night."
What the Grizzlies' "contingency plan" might be is a mystery to me. Tony Allen is their fourth-leading scorer, but he has no consistent shot to speak of, and the vast majority of his buckets are hustle or garbage points. Courtney Lee is their next available option, and it's possible that he could be a serious X-Factor in this series. Generally, he's known as a floor spacer, but he's more of a jack of all trades. If he can get the ball on the perimeter, he's generally pretty good about faking out his opponent and darting in for a pull-up shot or a high floater off the glass. Lee's game almost entirely relies on the element of surprise, only facing up opponents during his excellent transition plays.
That's exactly the type of player that can kill the Thunder, though. Especially when they're regularly playing poor perimeter defenders in Butler, Fisher, and even KD. Worse still, Lee and Miller could be particularly mean threats if the Grizzlies can get some defensive stops of their own. I don't know if it'll be tonight, but we'll definitely be cursing them during at least one more night of this series.
Hopefully, tonight isn't that night, and the Thunder can escape the Grindhouse with a win. They'll need someone not from the big three to step up, and they'll need to lock down the interior game. Failure to do either will almost assure the Thunder a loss, unless the Grizzlies can't shoot again. But Big Blue has been in worse holes before, and there's no doubt that they have the capability of winning this game. Even if they play as shadows of their former selves.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Memphis Grizzlies 108 (4OT)
What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!