POSTED: Apr 17, 2014 9:57 AM ET
Marc Gasol (left) and Serge Ibaka will bang heads again in the first round.
Well, isn't this juicy? Thunder vs. Grizzlies, Take 3.
Arena Link: Caron Butler
For the third time in four years, these two heavyweights get back in the ring for a best-of-7 playoff series. And while the Grizzlies have been hailed as the dark horse contender that can pack a wallop in the early round, there might be no opponent the Thunder wanted more.
"Now that we're healthy," 260-pound Thunder center Kendrick Perkins told reporters following Oklahoma City's skin-of-its-teeth season-ending win against Detroit Wednesday night, "we get a chance to get a little back."
Nothing beats the sweet taste of revenge. In 2011, when these clubs were both up-and-comers, OKC outlasted the Grizzlies in a grueling seven games to advance to its first Western Conference finals. Last season, Memphis returned the favor against the shorthanded Thunder, down injured All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, to get into its first West finals.
The past is the past but the intrigue remains. The Thunder have dealt with injures and have not played consistent, championship-level basketball since the All-Star break, going 16-11. Memphis has been going strong since Jan. 1 and is 40-19 with a healthy Marc Gasol; 10-13 without him.
OKC won the season series 3-1, but little was as it will be in this series. Westbrook played in two of the four games, but not in the lone Grizzlies victory. Gasol and Mike Conley played in three; defensive stopper Tony Allen in just one.
The lone constant was the soon-to-be-named first-time MVP Kevin Durant. He averaged 30.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, shooting 51.8 percent. Last year in Memphis' playoffs win, with Westbrook watching, the Grizzlies hounded Durant with a combination of defenders including Tayshaun Prince early, Allen late and just about everybody during crunch time of a series that was closer than 4-1 would suggest. Memphis adds the athletic James Johnson to the Durant rotation this time.
"Gonna be a tough series," Durant told reporters Wednesday night. "We got a lot of history with these guys."
Defense remains Memphis' calling card under first-year coach Dave Joerger, an assistant under former coach Lionel Hollins. But if the Grizz are going to take this series deep and provoke thoughts of an upset, they're going to have to score. Oklahoma City ranks seventh in the league in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions). Memphis ranks 17th and last among West playoff teams. But OKC also ranks fifth in defensive rating and held the Grizzlies to 93.5 points a game in four games this season.
Conley has improved as a deep threat and Memphis added Mike Miller over the summer and Courtney Lee midway through the season to bolster a meager 3-point attack. Still, the Grizzlies finished last in the league in 3-point attempts and rank second-to-last among West playoff teams in 3-point percentage (35.3).
"I do think we can generate enough offense, and I think a lot of it is I think our defense dictates that," Conley said. "Our offense is capable, very capable. We have a lot of guys who can score, but we just stick to the system and try to play through that."
1. Is Kevin Durant tired? Just maybe? A couple of weeks ago he swatted the question away like it was a mosquito, but only Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler have averaged more than Durant's 38.5 minutes a game. Nobody's touched Durant's 3,121 total minutes. Dallas workhorse Monta Ellis is next, 98 minutes — more than two full games — under Durant's stunning total. Durant had to play 45 minutes in Wednesday's finale and OKC needed all of his 42 points to beat Detroit. Every night he's carried a massive load for his team with the national spotlight tracking him every step in his pursuit of LeBron James for the MVP. On nights when Westbrook was out, Durant averaged more than six assists to go with unconscious scoring at an efficient 50.3 percent overall. Lately, though, he's gone three games in a row and four out of five shooting under 50 percent. Widen it out a bit and he's under 50 percent in seven of nine games, and 42 percent or worse in four of those games. Tired? Maybe. But don't bet on it.
2. What should we expect from Russell Westbrook? He's made references to clinging to an angry mentality as the playoffs approach. Obviously he feels Patrick Beverley robbed him off a golden opportunity to return to the Finals last season and finish the job. Three surgeries later — two secondary, and unforeseen, arthroscopic procedures -- he's back where it all started and ended for him. Physically he appears as healthy as ever, driving hard to the basket and swooping in for offensive boards. In 46 games, he averaged 21.8 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds a game. The question with Westbrook remains if he can harness all that energy, stay focused on making the right play at key times and avoid four, five, six turnovers a game.
3. Is Dave Joerger prepared for his first NBA postseason? We'll soon find out how Joerger handles playoff pressure. He coached multiple championship teams in the D-League and he's a pretty cool customer. Lionel Hollins brought a disposition to the team that obviously differs from the younger Joerger, but players have talked about this being an extremely tight-knit and easy-going locker room, so he's been able to foster unity when it could have easily splintered during their difficult first two months. Once on their feet, Joerger and the players experienced a final month of fighting for their playoff lives every night, and again they hung together and continued to improve under their first-time NBA head coach. That's a pretty good sign that the Grizzlies' sideline won't go haywire in key spots.
4. Is this Mike Conley's time? Conley really picked up his game last postseason during the Grizzlies' run to the West finals, averaging 17.0 points and 7.1 assists, and hasn't let up since. Now every TV interview he does has him introduced as the most underrated guard in the league. Maybe just under-talked-about. This season he's taken it upon himself to increase his scoring average from 14.6 points to 17.1 and extend his range beyond the arc, all while maintaining 6.1 assists a game. His task stiffens with Russell Westbrook back in the lineup. Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha and a more experienced Reggie Jackson will give Conley different looks as opposed to last season when Westbrook was out and Jackson's head was swimming trying to jump from 14 minutes a game to 30 in Westbrook's absence. If Conley can steer the Grizzlies past the favored Thunder, no one will be calling him underrated any longer.
5. Can Caron Butler be a factor for OKC? Yeah, he can. In 22 games with the Thunder, he's made 45 of 102 3-point attempts. He quickly supplanted second-year wing Jeremy Lamb in the rotation and is loving playing with Durant and Westbrook. As long as he keeps knocking down the corner 3 they'll love playing with him. Butler, 6-foot-7 and 228 pounds, throws down defensive attitude and really goes at a guy in bursts. He frustrated Houston's James Harden at times during a March 11 win at OKC. Butler won a ring with Dallas in 2011, but he didn't play after Jan. 1 that year after a gruesome knee injury. He wants to be a part of something special.
A big advantage for OKC is it has three excellent ballhandlers in Westbrook, the 7-foot Durant and backup point guard Reggie Jackson. At times all three will be on the floor together and that can really stretch a defense. All three can put the ball on the floor, drive, pull-up or dish to an open teammate such as Serge Ibaka (one of the league's top mid-range jumpshooters), Caron Butler or Thabo Sefolosha. Considering Durant can shoot over any defender and Westbrook's quickness makes him nearly impossible to check one-on-one, defenses gamble by double-teaming and trapping, a tactic Memphis successfully employed on Durant last postseason with Westbrook sidelined.
Tremendous pressure is on Mike Conley and Tony Allen to slow the pace, avoid a high percentage of transition possessions and force Westbrook into the paint in hopes of creating turnovers. Tayshaun Prince and James Johnson have to at least make Durant work for his points. He can't be allowed to catch-and-shoot straightaway, uncontested 3-pointers. He'll bury those all day. If they can force Durant into a less efficient 30 points they'll have to be happy with that and work to stem Westbrook, Ibaka and Butler.
There's little secret that Conley runs the offense and that he's going to get the ball down low early in the possession and allow Gasol and Zach Randolph to go to work or move it. Neither option has been terribly easy for Memphis against OKC this season. Randolph and Conley have both averaged below their season scoring averages. Conley has shot 36.6 percent, including 33.3 from beyond the arc, where he's become a real threat. Gasol, an excellent passer out of the post who averaged 3.6 assists a game, has managed only 1.7 against the Thunder. To help the big boys get some breathing space, Conley, Mike Miller and Courtney Lee have to knock down perimeter shots. They'll get open opportunities.
The Thunder bring a unique brand of defense dominated by speed and length. Durant, Westbrook and Jackson can really fill the passing lanes and Sefolosha is a luxury coach Scott Brooks can sic on Conley for stretches and Lee if he heats up from deep. OKC center Kendrick Perkins was criticized heavily for his bumbling play against Memphis in last year's series, but he can play physically and enjoy it, use up fouls and then get spelled by muscle-bound rookie Steven Adams.
The entire world knows Durant is going to get the ball in late-game situations ... and it still doesn't matter. He's been devastatingly good in these scenarios and did it again in the Thunder's regular-season finale against Detroit with a drive and dunk. In the final 30 seconds of games with the margin three points or less, Durant has made six of his 11 shots, and in the final 10 seconds he's 3-for-7. Opposing defenses better guard him up high, too, because of his 9-for-18 shooting in that last half-minute, he's dropped all three of his shots from beyond the arc. Durant, like LeBron James, isn't afraid to swing the ball to the open man if he's trapped, and Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson aren't shy about letting a big shot fly.
One of the great aspects of Mike Conley's evolution as a full-service, elite-level point guard is how he's eager to take over games. In the last three minutes of games with the margin five points or less, Conley is 12-for-25 (48 percent) with three assists and no turnovers. In the last five minutes, his shooting percentage increases to 57.1 percent, plus 9-for-10 from the free-throw line and just one turnover over 58 minutes. His frantic drive in Wednesday's finale against Dallas -- the one that got Memphis to 50 wins and into the No. 7 seed -- was a coast-to-coast drive and two made free throws with 1.1 seconds left. While his late-game statistics might not necessarily show his improvement from beyond the arc, Conley is stepping into more 3-pointers later in games. He simply can't be left alone from distance.
Imagine Tayshaun Prince increasing his regular-season scoring average of 6.0 points a game to nine or 10? For a team that keeps the pace at a more pedestrian level than most -- OK, the Grizzlies rank last in the league in possessions per game -- and isn't going to explode the scoreboard, Prince, smart and selfless, could be dynamic in shifting a close game and series. The starting small forward, who plays next to a mostly non-scoring shooting guard in Tony Allen, will be a significant factor if his mid-range jumper splashes through a few more times.
OKC's rookie center Steven Adams is big and strong, young and athletic. The kind of guy a team needs to swap paint with Gasol and Randolph, who was practically suffocated out of the Memphis offense in the West finals against the Spurs last year. A strong reinforcement from Adams, an option unavailable a year ago, can go a long way into making Memphis' frontline stars expend plenty of energy on the offensive end, keep Kendrick Perkins' minutes down to productive bursts and aid Serge Ibaka's cause to stay out of foul trouble.
The Grizzlies are a prideful group and, if not for Gasol's knee injury in November, they likely wouldn't be a No. 7 seed. But they are and the Thunder are too athletic, too fast, too talented and too deep to knock out this time around. Oklahoma City in 6.
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