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Scott Howard-Cooper

Memphis will look to establish its strength in the post with Zach Randolph (right) and Marc Gasol.

Deliberate and gritty meets uptempo in Thunder-Grizz matchup


Posted May 4, 2013 12:18 PM

The matchup no one could have seen coming is not a surprise. Which makes perfect sense?

These teams, sure. The Thunder are the defending West champions and, at worst, have spent 2012-13 as co-favorites, along with San Antonio, to win the conference. The Grizzlies are big and have a defense few teams can solve one game at a time during the regular season, let alone during the playoffs with time to lock in on an opponent.

But not these teams. This isn't the Memphis squad people got used to seeing as playoff regulars, not since Rudy Gay was traded to Toronto in January. And Oklahoma City without Russell Westbrook, injured in the first round against the Rockets, is definitely an unusual look.

The big difference, of course, is that the Thunder miss Westbrook. Now, his absence projects as the big difference in the series going from OKC being favored to Memphis as the team to beat.

Five quick questions (and answers)

1. Is it possible this series will have the best individual matchup of the entire playoffs? Tony Allen on Kevin Durant for stretches of at least four games in a row and as many as seven will be must-see TV.

2. Any other very good matchups? Glad you asked. The defense of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins on the Memphis big-man tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

3. What is the most impressive statistic among the many numbers that spotlight the Memphis defense? By allowing 89.3 points a game, the Grizzlies became the first team in the league since 2005-06 to go sub-90 for a season.

4. What does not show up in the numbers? The Grizzlies play with such a mental toughness. No one draws them away from their preferred style of play, and they just responded to a 0-2 deficit against the Clippers.

5. How big is the adjustment for the Thunder going from facing the Rockets to facing the Grizzlies? Very. Houston wants to keep the scoreboard numbers moving. Memphis wants to play ball-control and grind.

When the Thunder have the ball ...

They will want to push the pace. Still. Losing point guard Westbrook is obviously a big hit, but teams won't make any major changes to style of play in the middle of the playoffs. That is asking for more trouble than trying to play fast without a distributor to handle the job.

Memphis can counter the speed and counter it game after game. The Grizzlies just played the Clippers six times and routinely, especially the last four, turned Lob City into a ghost town. The Grizz are proven at dealing with a team that wants a transition game.

When the Grizzlies have the ball ...

Starting lineups
Thunder Pos Grizzlies
Serge Ibaka F Zach Randolph
Kevin Durant F Tayshaun Prince
Kendrick Perkins C Marc Gasol
Thabo Sefolosha G Tony Allen
Reggie Jackson G Mike Conley

.... they want to covet the ball. Memphis had trouble putting up points and making shots when they had leading-scorer Gay and it had the same trouble after dealing Gay. The key is to reduce waste. To put it another way, the Grizz committed all of 42 turnovers while taking four in a row from the Clippers.

If Ibaka, Perkins and Nick Collison can come close to containing Randolph and Gasol, Memphis will be forced to rely more on a perimeter game. And Memphis does not want to do that.

In the clutch

Think it would have been Kevin Durant's moment anyway? Imagine now that Westbrook isn't an option. Coming down the stretch of a close game will be KD against the world, as the Grizzlies, and everyone else, will know. Memphis does not have the singular go-to guy, but does have options. That approach has worked out very well this season.

Wild cards

OKC's long history of being turnover prone continues. That would have been enough of a looming issue, except that now second-year man Reggie Jackson is running the point without any experience at this rarified level. Get sloppy with the ball now and the Thunder are not in the same position without Westbrook to overcome the mistakes.

The Grizzlies have a similar X-factor. Mike Conley went from 6.1 assists against 2.4 turnovers in the regular season to 8.3 and 1.7, respectively, in the first round against the best point guard in the game, Chris Paul. Memphis, with its style of play, can't expect to generate extra possessions by playing fast, so taking care of the chances it does have is critical.

Prediction

This has set up perfectly for the Grizzlies -- they are playing better than the Thunder, with four consecutive wins by double digits while OKC has fallen forward into the second round, and they get an opponent without its second-best player. Memphis wins in six.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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