We've already reached unprecedented territory for the Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder entered this postseason having won two playoff games in last year's first-round series with the Los Angeles Lakers. That put Oklahoma City two wins ahead of the Grizzlies, winless in franchise playoff history just two short weeks ago. Now, one of these two teams--who won a combined 47 games just two seasons ago--is four wins away from a spot in the Western Conference Finals.
WHEN OKLAHOMA CITY HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.5 possessions per 48 minutes (13th NBA), 93.0 (1st) playoffs
Oklahoma City Offensive Rating: 113.1 points per 100 possessions (4th NBA), 110.7 (4th) playoffs
Memphis Defensive Rating: 106.8 points per 100 possessions (8th NBA), 104.7 (7th) playoffs
The first order for business for Lionel Hollins in preparation for this series will surely be brainstorming just how to handle Thunder forward Kevin Durant, who led the league in scoring during the first round of the playoffs at 32.4 points per game. Durant did it while improving his True Shooting Percentage from .589 during the regular season to .628 against the Denver Nuggets. To deal with Durant, Hollins might be tempted to change his starting lineup. Stopper Tony Allen and Sam Young, Memphis' starting wings, both give up too much length to be ideal matchups for Durant.
Instead, the superior matchup is sixth man Shane Battier, who is four inches taller than Allen and used to defending bigger small forwards. If Battier does not start out of deference to the Grizzlies' established rotation, expect to see him early and often. Durant has been able to get his points against Battier, and do so while shooting a solid percentage thanks to hot three-point shooting. Where Battier has had success is keeping Durant off the free throw line. According to NBA.com's StatsCube, Durant averaged just 3.8 free throw attempts per 36 minutes when matched up with Battier this season, as compared to 8.0 attempts per 36 overall.
If Battier is on Durant, Memphis can deploy Allen against the Thunder's other leading scorer, Russell Westbrook. That matchup will work well when Thabo Sefolosha is at shooting guard for Oklahoma City, as the Grizzlies can then hide point guard Mike Conley on Sefolosha. Conley will have a more difficult time dealing with Thunder sixth man James Harden, who has a budding post game and can bully Conley off the drive when he's in the game--as he likely will be down the stretch.
During the regular-season matchup between these two teams, Westbrook torched Memphis for 24.5 points and 9.0 assists per game, making half of his two-point attempts and averaging nearly nine trips to the free throw line a night. So the Grizzlies will have to find a better answer for dealing with him.
Together, Durant and Westbrook scored more than half of Oklahoma City's points in the series with Denver. In this series, the Thunder will almost certainly need more balance. Harden and forward Serge Ibaka are the two most likely candidates to provide that additional scoring. Harden slumped from three-point range in the opening round before hitting a key triple in the midst of Oklahoma City's Durant-led comeback in the fourth quarter of the deciding Game Five. Expect him to return to form beyond the arc in this series. The Nuggets did an excellent job of keeping Ibaka on the perimeter, where he is streaky. Nearly half of Ibaka's regular-season shot attempts came at the rim, but in the playoffs he took more shots outside the paint than in it. The Grizzlies would surely love to do the same.
WHEN MEMPHIS HAS THE BALL
Pace: 90.7 possessions per 48 minutes (15th NBA), 88.9 (8th) playoffs
Memphis Offensive Rating: 108.8 points per 100 possessions (16th NBA), 107.4 (8th) playoffs
Oklahoma City Defensive Rating: 108.4 points per 100 possessions (13th NBA) regular season, 103.9 (6th) playoffs
Ibaka is the man on the spot in this series. Earlier this week, I wrote about how the Thunder's duo of Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins had resulted in one of the league's best interior defenses. The key note here is that Perkins' presence allows Ibaka to guard lesser post options. What makes Memphis so unique is that both of the team's big men are legitimate post-up threats. This was problematic for San Antonio in the first round, as the Spurs couldn't put Tim Duncan on both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and we figure to see the same issue here.
It's unclear how Oklahoma City will match up. Perkins did not play in any of the regular-season matchups between these teams, but in the one game played after the deadline, Ibaka guarded Randolph with the team's better post defenders (reserve centers Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed) on Gasol. On paper, Perkins against Randolph is the better matchup, but Scott Brooks may prefer the more natural positional matchups. Also, while Randolph is good enough at this point to pose problems either way the Thunder matches up, Perkins could largely neutralize Gasol.
Either way, Ibaka is going to have to guard a capable post scorer.
According to Synergy Sports, Ibaka allowed .92 points per post up and 1.04 points per play in spot-up situations, both below league average. If Ibaka can't keep Gasol or Randolph from establishing post position early, Brooks will have little choice but to respond with double teams.
In turn, the help defense puts the pressure on the Grizzlies' perimeter players to knock down open jumpers. What was remarkable about Memphis' opening-round victory was how little production the Grizzlies got from beyond the arc. Memphis made 22 three-pointers in six games, with O.J. Mayo (8-of-16) and Battier (6-of-17) the only Grizzlies to make more than three triples. The Spurs never were able to take advantage of this weakness. The Thunder must make Memphis win from outside.
Despite his complete lack of range, Allen was surprisingly effective against Oklahoma City this season, averaging 18.8 points per game and attempting 31 free throws in four games. Allen scored nine points in the Thunder's lone head-to-head win, but scored at least 19 in all three of the Grizzlies' victories. That wild-card scoring from the perimeter is useful because Oklahoma City should be able to contain Memphis' pick-and-roll game. The Thunder counters Mike Conley with the long, physical Russell Westbrook and multiple bigs capable of hedging against the pick-and-roll. Conley shot just 37.7 percent against Oklahoma City this season.
The Grizzlies enter this series on a roll, having played great basketball after the trade deadline and become just the fourth No. 8 seed in NBA history to advance to the conference semifinals. The only problem is this: the Thunder has done Memphis one better one both counts. Oklahoma City was the league's third-best team after the deadline and delivered the opening round's most impressive performance with their five-game wipeout of an equally hot Denver squad. While Memphis' 3-1 head-to-head series win is encouraging, three of the four games were played when both teams were very different before the deadline. All four games were close and Perkins did not play in any of them. Oklahoma City even gave Cole Aldrich minutes in the last meeting, a Grizzlies win in March. So I'm not sure those results tell us much. In a vacuum, the Thunder is the better team. I don't think the Grizzlies have enough matchup advantages to make up that gap.
Oklahoma City in 6
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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