They were gone. They were history. They were no longer part of the equation.
But now, they’re back.
Expectation. Pressure. Stress.
After the Thunder wiped their hands clean of the Nuggets, in terms of just taking another step, it was mission accomplished. Winning a playoff series meant this season could be seen as nothing but a complete success. Oklahoma City had progressed a little more. There was another jump in the development towards becoming a champions. The 55 wins and a division title were great and all, but with homecourt, winning a series was the expectation. Anything less would lead to a wave of disappointment.
And it all went according to plan. Of course there always was the hope for more before the postseason started, but I don’t think anyone would be upset with a second-round dismissal at the hands of the top-seeded Spurs.
But then a funny thing happened. The Grizzlies won. And as a result, all that stuff is going to come back.
The majority is already picking the Thunder. OKC is the favorite. Vegas says so, all the people that type and talk for a living say so. The Thunder have homecourt, have Kevin Durant and should have an edge. The nerves, they’re back again.
Here’s my feeling though: I think people, myself included, make too much of this stuff. I mean, let’s face it — it’s the Western Semifinals. There’s going to be pressure regardless of the opponent at this point. When something like the Western Conference Finals are on the horizon, if you’re not feel a bit of anxiety, then you’re not human.
Against the Nuggets, the Thunder faced plenty of it. And I almost think they relished it. At a few different points maybe they looked tight and nervous, but in the biggest moment with OKC down nine and facing a Game 6 in Denver, I think the Thunder did just fine. No doubt the expectation to win has returned. The Thunder’s the higher seed. They’ve got home court advantage. If all goes according to plan, they should win.
Then again, so should’ve the Spurs. So really, at this point, I don’t even know what to think. I do know that I’m going to be terrified, excited, horrified, psyched and about a hundred other emotions leading up to tip-off before Game 1. This is a pretty awesome opportunity for the Thunder. And not just because they lucked out with getting homecourt, but because this team is capable of doing something special. But it all starts with Sunday.
Throw out the previous four meetings. They don’t mean anything. That Thunder team that went 1-3 against Memphis isn’t this Thunder team. Not that there aren’t things to learn and take from those games, but in terms of just assuming this is a bad matchup for OKC because of those four games isn’t wise. Because the Thunder match up pretty well now.
Every game was close between the two teams with one game going to overtime. The average margin was just 1.5 points in Memphis’s favor.
The Starting Five
PG: Russell Westbrook does well against Mike Conley but don’t underestimate the Memphis point guard. He’s very good in the pick-and-roll and if you go under a screen, he’s entirely capable of knocking down a 3. This should be a good edge in the Thunder’s favor though. That is, if Westbrook can get his head clear and play loose.
SG: Interesting matchup here. Technically, Tony Allen is the starting 2-guard and of course Thabo is here for the Thunder. Both are on the floor primarily for their defense, but as we know, Allen tends to play awesome against OKC.
SF: The Grizzlies start Sam Young but Shane Battier gets heavy minutes here too. With the way Battier guards Kevin Durant, according to the numbers, I’d imagine we’ll see more Battier than Young. Either way, it’s not like KD doesn’t have a good edge here.
PF: If Zach Randolph doesn’t scare you, then you haven’t been paying attention. He’s been a bad, bad man this postseason. Against the Spurs though, they tried 71-year-old Antonio McDyess and Matt Bonner on him primarily. Serge Ibaka has a little more length, strength, athleticism and size than those two.
C: I really think Kendrick Perkins will do well on Marc Gasol. You could make a case that Gasol has been better than his brother Pau this postseason, but Perk is just going to settle into the post and push on Gasol. The Grizzlies have a great frontline, but OKC matches well against it.
The Grizzlies have put together a bit of a rag-tag bunch of really quality bench guys. Darrell Arthur has been huge. Greivis Vasquez has been great in a backup point guard role. Of course Battier and then O.J. Mayo who’s given a good scoring and shooting punch off the bench. They’re a dangerous group. With James Harden, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed though, the Thunder seems to have a bit more reliable depth. Pretty close here though.
Both coaches are new to this. Lionel Hollins doesn’t get enough credit for the job he’s done with these young Grizzlies, because it’s been pretty spectacular. Like Scott Brooks, he’s not the best in-game manager, but he’s a solid motivator and will have his guys focused and ready to play. Brooks did really well in the opening series though, pushing a number of right buttons in adjustments, rotations, minutes and other areas. No edge here for either necessarily, but it’ll be interesting to see if either coach cracks a bit.
Five Important Questions
1. How will Lionel Hollins play the matchups? Scott Brooks is definitely holding the cards here. OKC knows its rotation and there won’t be a lot of adjusting to compensate for Memphis. But Hollins has some decidin’ to do.
Mike Conley has had trouble with Russell Westbrook every time they’ve played. Tony Allen though is a terrific wing defender and has the size and lateral quickness to hang with Westbrook. So Hollins could go with Allen on Westbrook and stick Conley on Thabo Sefolosha who we know is a major offensive liability.
Where it gets interesting is when James Harden comes in. Obviously Conley can’t guard Harden, so Hollins would likely go back to Conley on Westbrook and Allen on Harden. Or O.J. Mayo who is Memphis’s Beard. So interesting, these matchups are.
2. Related: Shane Battier or Tony Allen on KD? The numbers I posted yesterday don’t lie: KD actually averages 28.9 ppg per 36 with Allen on the floor as opposed to 21.2 with him on the bench. Against Shane Battier though, Durant averaged 30.5 with Battier on the bench and 23.4 with him on the bench (per 36). Battier has always defended Durant well and I’d assume that’s who Lionel Hollins would go with on KD. (The main thing Battier does so well is defend KD without fouling. Durant gets just 3.8 free throws per 36 with Battier on the floor against 8.7 with him off.)
One thing to watch is how the officials handle Allen playing Durant really physical. Allen is a bulldog defender that likes to use his hands. KD will need to bust out a few more Randy Moss moves.
3. How does Russell Westbrook respond? No denying he wasn’t himself in Game 5. He did hit a big time 3 though in the fourth quarter and made smart decisions with the ball getting it to Durant. He just was a bit passive, timid and didn’t shoot well. He needs to snap out of that because he could potentially be the Thunder’s biggest edge in this series.
4. Can Serge Ibaka handle Z-Bo? “Handle” is a loaded word. Because nobody is going to handle Zach Randolph when he’s got his game working like it is now. Can Ibaka slow him down a tick? I think so. San Antonio just didn’t have anyone really ideal to throw at Randolph and OKC has a number of guys to use. Ibaka did relatively well in the regular season on him and the thing is, Serge is far better now than he was in those first four meetings. Z-Bo scares me like he’s walking around with dynamite taped to his chest, but I think Ibaka can hang in there.
5. Does either team really have an advantage anywhere? Like I said, probably Westbrook at the point is OKC’s biggest advantage. But Memphis has two post guys that score, which OKC doesn’t. It’s a pretty evenly matched series really. Good, not great coaches. Good benches both. Solid starting fives with a fair compliment of defenders, shooters, slashers and scorers. I actually think the Memphis team with Rudy Gay was a better matchup for OKC because Durant did well against Gay. Having to see Allen and Battier on KD for a bunch of games makes me nervous.
Four Good Stats
1. OKC does not score the ball well in the paint against Memphis. Against everyone else, the Thunder shot 38 percent in the paint. Against the Grizzlies, just 29 percent.
2. A lot was made in the first four games about rebounding, but the Thunder actually held an overall average edge of 41.4 to 38.3.
3. The Grizzlies shot 33.4 percent from 3 against the rest of the league but just 17.9 percent against the Thunder.
4. Against the Thunder the Grizzlies took almost seven more free throws per game than they did the rest of the season (23.9 to 30.5).
1. Rebounding. Just mentioned it, but the Thunder actually did better than you think. OKC’s rebound rate was 52.0 to Memphis’s 48.0 in the four meetings. And that was with Jeff Freaking Green at power forward for four games. Now with the stronger inside unit of Perk and Ibaka, I think the Thunder should continue to do well here. Rebounding was a major plus for OKC against Denver and it needs to be again.
2. Interior defense. Defending Gasol and Randolph is where it all starts defensively. That’s where the Grizzlies want to score primarily from. If those guys get going with their high-low action, then they start expanding out and Memphis becomes a really tough team to defend.
3. Turnovers. OKC turned it over 17 times a game in the four previous meetings. That’s not good. The Grizzlies play as very active, swarming style of defending spearheaded by Tony Allen. Valuing the basketball, staying under control and make good, smart decisions with the ball is very important.
I believe in the power of the arena formerly known as the Ford Center. I believe in homecourt advantage. All that pressure talk I went over? That stuff can get snuffed out in the comfort of your home. And in Oklahoma City, the Thunder are 5-1 in the postseason.
I think the Thunder learned a whole lot about each other during that Denver series. They had to stand together after Game 4 and respond. They had to hang tough in Game 5. They grew up. They made big plays. I think that series was a major step for this group in about 500 different ways.
But this series, man, it’s going to be a dogfight. Have you seen those crowds in Memphis? Those people are jacked up. Even winning one game on the road would be huge. I get the sense this series will be a lot of back and forth, a lot of alternating momentum and it’ll come down to which teams star makes more plays. OKC has a potential trump card in Russell Westbrook. If he is locked in along with Durant, I think the Thunder can get it done in six, maybe even five games. If there’s a lull again, these Grizzlies won’t forgive you. All I keep saying to myself is, “It’s going to be tough.” But I believe in the Thunder. I believe in the matchup. I believe, in Kevin Durant. I’m going Thunder, in seven games.