Thunder against the Grizzlies. Sounds about right.
The five-game burnout against Memphis for the Thunder last season had a clear caveat. This time, it’s back to all square.
The teams met four times in the regular season, with the Thunder winning three of those. Two featured Russell Westbrook (the Thunder won both of those). Only one featured Tony Allen. One was missing Mike Conley. Another, Marc Gasol.
Now though, both teams are full strength. So no excuses, no wondering what might’ve been. It’s going to be a good first round series, and one that has the potential to go either way.
But what do we know about the way these two teams match up? Here are five things to prep with:
1. The Grizzlies aren’t your typical No. 7 seed. They’re 40-19 this season with Marc Gasol in the lineup. Meaning they’re just 10-13 without him. They won 50 games in the difficult Southwest Division, and are 18-7 since March 1. Overall, they finished 16th in offensive efficiency scoring 103.3 points per 100 possessions, and seventh in defensive, allowing 102.1.
The interesting thing about those numbers too, is that Gasol’s presence on the floor doesn’t great swing them. In fact, the Grizzlies allowing 102.2 points per 100 with him on, 102.0 with him off. But there’s no question he greatly impacts the way they play, because he allows the otherwise thin Memphis bench to carry a productive big on it (Kosta Koufos) and it lets Zach Randolph settle into his preferred place on the block.
2. Matchups. I was going to do something on the Thunder’s best and worst lineups against the Grizzlies, but after looking over the numbers, they’re all too skewed and misleading. For example, the Thunder’s best lineup (min. five minutes) is Fisher, Jackson, Lamb, Collison and Adams, who are a net rating +50.4 in eight minutes. With Westbrook sitting two games, and the starting five not being available for any of the four, it’s hard to really gauge what the real effective lineups were for OKC.
3. How will the Thunder handle the Memphis bigs? Gasol and Randolph, Randolph and Gasol. We all know where the Grizzlies do their work and make their living. And the Thunder seemingly have a frontline that’s built to push back.
But here’s the wrinkle we saw some of this season: The common thinking has always been that Kendrick Perkins is there for Gasol, but really, it seems he’s better suited to defend Randolph. And the numbers suggest he should. Per NBA.com, Randolph shot just 8-23 in 56 minutes this season with Perk on the floor, and just 6-15 in specific one-on-one matchups against Perk.
It means Serge Ibaka has the assignment of checking Gasol, which is a big ask, but one major bonus to that is Gasol draws a lot fewer fouls than Randolph does.
The other question: When does OKC go small? The Thunder love their small lineups, but mostly lean on them when they need an offensive spark. Kevin Durant is capable of defending Gasol, but that’s not something you want the Thunder to rely on heavily. The idea with the small lineup is to create an offensive mismatch, forcing the Grizzlies to either remove one of their bigs, or to try and hide one on a guard. Scott Brooks has been willing to go to that lineup without hesitation, but most times, it’s when the Thunder needed a comeback spark.
4. What should be the Memphis gameplan? If I were Dave Joerger, I’d take a big risk. I’d defend Durant the exact same way the Grizzlies did in the postseason — two, sometimes three defenders circling him — and basically dare Russell Westbrook to beat them. Westbrook’s biggest area of maturation the last few years has been no self-destructing but instead rebooting himself when things go bad. Still: I’d make Westbrook do the heavy lifting. Because he’s far more prone to just be off than Durant is.
Baiting Westbrook into 25-27 shot attempts isn’t hard to do, and if he goes 10-27 — all good looks — while Durant goes 7-14, it’s going to get the chatter going. It’s going to start the second guessing. It’s going to crank the noise. Westbrook is the reason the Thunder lost to the Grizzlies last postseason; I’d make him the reason they won this time.
5. Prediction. The Thunder have drawn a difficult first round opponent, but maybe the best one for them currently. The biggest issue the team has faced the last month and a half is defensive inconsistency, primarily in defending the 3-point line. The Grizzlies, while they do possess a couple shooters (hello, Mike Miller), don’t play that way. The Mavs aren’t as good as the Grizzlies, but with Rick Carlisle’s ball movement and spacing offense, it could’ve given OKC trouble.
The Grizzlies though, aren’t going to outscore you. They want the game in the halfcourt, one possession at a time. The Thunder have a bad habit of playing to the identity of their opponent, but at the same time, that’s part of what’s made OKC so successful. They have true lineup versatility and can win games in three or four different ways. Fast and loose, slow and tight, big, small, whatever. The Grizzlies have a specific identity, and have to execute that as well as they can.
Obviously the Grizzlies are an extremely good team, and my pick — Thunder in five — isn’t necessarily me saying the Thunder are that much better. But when you look at the dynamics of the series, the Thunder should be in a position where they need to win one in Memphis to have a chance to close out at home in Game 5. I think with a healthy Russell Westbrook, the Grizzlies just can’t play their cards the same way anymore. They’ve got to try and contend with the two-headed beast, and while they’re clearly a difficult team to grind down, the Thunder are built — one way or the other — to do so.