Every Possession Key in Thunder-Grizzlies Matchup

In the NBA, and the Western Conference in particular, it is what makes teams unique that makes them elite.

True familiarity with an opponent comes from repeated meetings, and as the Thunder continues to grow as an organization, trips to the Playoffs will often include matchups with some of the same elite teams year-in and year-out. The Thunder and Grizzlies have faced off in the Playoffs for 12 games over the past three years, with each team taking one series from the other. Now this year, in the first round, the pair of Western Conference foes will meet again for a chance to play up to seven more times.

Both the Thunder and Grizzlies know the other team’s game plan and what they hope to accomplish on the floor. It all comes down to who executes their principles best on each given night. Head Coach Scott Brooks and his staff will try to implement new strategic wrinkles into both sides of the ball, while still staying within the core belief system of the team that it has worked on and displayed throughout the regular season.

“We know them well enough,” guard Thabo Sefolosha said. “We know what we have to do. It’s just following the game plan and staying focused throughout the game and the 48 minutes.”

“Its 48 minutes,” guard Russell Westbrook said. “It’s the same game. The only thing that changes, is that if you lose, you go home. The way you play the game doesn’t change.”

The Thunder, first and foremost, wants to get stops on the defensive end. Using its athleticism, quickness and communication, the Thunder has the ability to clog up the paint, get hands in the passing lanes and close out strongly to contest shots from the perimeter. After those stops, the Thunder has to corral the rebound with strong box outs, then push the tempo in transition to get easy offensive opportunities in the open floor before the Grizzlies’ defense is set.

On defense, the Thunder knows that the Grizzlies try to play inside-out, using the tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph at the high and low posts to get high percentage looks near the rim. Thunder bigs Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Steven Adams must keep Randolph and Gasol in front of them, using their strength and length to force them into difficult, contested jumpers from outside of the paint.

“It’s about our team against their team,” Collison said. “Their bigs are very important to what they do, but we’re going to rely on our teammates helping us. How we play as a unit is going to determine whether we win or lose.”

Perimeter defenders Kevin Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher and Caron Butler must all close out on the Grizzlies’ perimeter shooters, namely Courtney Lee, Mike Conley and Tayshawn Prince. If the Thunder can prevent the Grizzlies’ shooters from getting into a rhythm early in the game, that could pay dividends in the second half, as these games will surely come down to who makes plays and hits shots late.

“We can’t relax,” Sefolosha said. “It’s not just going to be two men battling two men down in the post. It’s about team concepts and playing defense all together.”

The dynamic Thunder offense’s engine is Westbrook, whose speed, strength and relentlessness put pressure on defenses on every possession. With grace, precision and marksmanship, Durant puts the same sort of strain on opposing defenses with his ability to score from the outside, in addition to attacking the paint. In a word, Westbrook said the key to the Thunder’s offense will be, “pace”.

“It is pace, but that doesn’t just mean fast breaks,” Collison further explained, after agreeing with Westbrook. “It’s the pace at which we run our offense and get into our offense. They’re a physical team. They’re going to try to bump and make our catches tough around the court. So it’s important that we’re moving with sharp cuts, our timing is good and the ball moves.”

Perhaps the most crucial man in the Thunder’s offense, however, is Serge Ibaka, whose play in the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop on both sides of the floor with Westbrook and Durant helps the Thunder space the floor in a unique way. Ibaka’s mid-range shooting ability is complemented by three-point marksmen in Butler, Fisher and Sefolosha.

When called upon within Brooks’ rotation, the Thunder’s second unit with Jackson and Collison also find their way to get high percentage looks in the pick-and-roll, through sound ball and player movement.

“Serge has made a big jump in all areas of the game,” Brooks explained. “He has some good chemistry with Kevin and Russell in pick-and-roll play. He does a good job of getting separation off of those coverages.”

“Our ability to play off of one another has really improved over the past few years,” Brooks said. “Our ability to pass the ball has improved also the last few years. That has helped us.”