Marc Gasol after an entertaining Grizzlies victory over the Thunder in March (Getty Images)
Somehow, the NBA survived its regular season and first round of the postseason with enough players to field eight teams, so we’re just going to go ahead and begin the conference semifinals. The minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each second-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
Which team do you think will win the series, and in how many games? Vote here to let us know what you think.
Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
On Friday evening, after having dispatched the Los Angeles Clippers in six games in their first round pairing, social media suddenly started talking up a 2013 NBA Finals matchup featuring the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies. After a first round win.
Didn’t the Grizz, a fifth seed in a transitional year, have the conference semis and finals to work though? Yes, but Twitter had an answer.
The top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder?
“Yeah, Russell Westbrook’s out.”
The league’s most efficient scorer, and likely MVP runner-up, Kevin Durant?
“Yeah, Tayshaun Prince.”
Possible fear, against the conference’s best team?
“Yeah, took ‘em to seven games two years ago.”
Zach Randolph’s terrible regular season showing against the Thunder?
“Yeah, he’s different now.”
The San Antonio Spurs, in the conference finals?
“Yeah, 2011 dude!”
The way that magician floated through the air without wires?
“Yeah, magnets! Those were magnets.”
I understand the giddiness. The Grizzlies are beyond admirable on several levels, and they certainly have the matchups in order. The team defends expertly and it is gaining offensive confidence as it whips the ball around early in a possession -- not merely waiting on a last-second Mike Conley screen and roll or desperate forced pass from Marc Gasol to initiate a hoped-for good look. Los Angeles’ lacking defense played a part, to be sure, but the Grizzlies gained momentum and knowledge over the course of six games in a way that somehow trumped the 26-8 run it ended the regular season with.
And the Thunder are, um, without Russell Westbrook.
This is the man that saved the sort of broken plays the Grizzlies live off of creating, defensively. The man that made the team’s fast break so frightening, even if Westbrook would jump in the air not knowing if a pass or shot would result. For as pell-mell as Westbrook’s game often looked, he afforded the Thunder a reliable option when things went pear-shaped, and the fact that Russ seemed so undaunted in the face of chaos allowed Oklahoma City to feed off his fearlessness.
No amount of Reggie Jackson (gifted though he may be, appreciated to no end by the OKC front office), Derek Fisher, and dishin’ and swishin’ from Kevin Durant can make up for even half of that loss. It’s not about approximating Westbrook’s stats. It’s the idea that someone else is going to try something dangerous when things have come to a head. The Thunder, sadly, don’t have that guy anymore.
Some elements appear to be slightly improving for OKC. Kevin Martin regained his scoring touch and daring ways as the opening round series against Houston closed out. Coach Scott Brooks caught up to the rest of the NBA, circa 2011, and played Kendrick Perkins scant minutes in Game 6. Perkins would seemingly be a boon to help guard Memphis center Marc Gasol in this series, but Marc can see over the top of Perkins (and each of the other Thunder defenders, including the masterful Nick Collison), so his presence isn’t badly needed unless Gasol is set on taking short jump hooks the entire series. Perhaps most importantly, an elongated second round series means Kevin Durant can get the rest he deserves between games, as he attempts to play like two All-Stars at once.
The Grizzlies’ swagger might be too much to overcome, though. This is a team that can win amongst all the deep blues in Oklahoma City, and they have their own All-Star in Zach Randolph that seems ready outwit a player in Serge Ibaka that held him to terrible shooting marks during the regular season. The quick passing and heads-up play from Tayshaun Prince could go a long way toward putting the Thunder defense on tilt, and freed from Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe’s (thank you, Vinny Del Negro!) clutches, Mike Conley could roll when faced with a second year guard in Reggie Jackson.
Let’s not talk Finals, yet. Let’s appreciate Memphis’ growth in spring, now.
PREDICTION: Grizzlies in 6.
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements – a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. – that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos” comes from the song “Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
Oklahoma City Thunder: More Nick Collison, please.
Oklahoma City’s first-round series with the Houston Rockets presented some less-than-ideal matchups for the Thunder’s starting frontcourt. Against a guard-heavy Rockets attack without a true back-to-the-basket threat, center Kendrick Perkins’ vaunted low-post defense wasn’t very valuable, especially when Houston went small, limiting the veteran big man to just 15.5 minutes per game in the series and only a brief 4:22 cameo in the series-clinching sixth game. Perkins’ partner, power forward Serge Ibaka, kept his regular-season per-minute scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking output steady, but was somewhat stymied by floor-stretching small-ball Houston lineups that had him chasing the likes of Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino around the perimeter rather than hovering near the basket to wreak weak-side havoc on unsuspecting shooters.
A Grizzlies team that prefers to play inside-out through frontcourt stars Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, then, seems like a much better matchup for OKC’s starting bigs, and a safer environment in which they can log longer minutes. They shouldn’t, though, if doing so means shorter stints for key backup Nick Collison. While the reserve forward/center’s per-minute productivity, defensive efficiency and on/off-court numbers against the league at large have long made him a stat-geek darling, they’ve been especially awesome against Memphis, and especially against resurgent low-block beast Randolph.
In the 44 minutes that Collison and Randolph shared the court this season, Z-Bo’s field goal percentage plummeted from 37.5 percent to 27.3 percent. Randolph was able to use his strength and leverage advantages to take more shots right at the rim, with 14 of his 22 attempts coming within the restricted area, but couldn’t finish to save his life, making only three. He also went 0 for 5 on other in-the-paint attempts with Collison playing, and had more shots blocked (seven) than he did in 71 minutes with Collison on the bench (five). That mirrors the dampening effect Collison had on Z-Bo in the classic Thunder-Grizzlies 2011 playoff series, in which Randolph shot 37 percent from the floor against Collison’s active defense and was a staggering -59 in 131 minutes against lineups featuring Collison over the course of seven games.
This also tracks with Collison’s overall on/off impact against Memphis, which has been massive. In 70 minutes with the Kansas product on the floor this season, the Grizzlies scored an abysmal average of 83.3 points per 100 possessions; in 79 minutes with Collison on the bench, the Grizzlies’ offensive efficiency skyrocketed to 109.9-per-100. To put that into perspective, with Collison sitting, Memphis’ bottom-half-of-the-NBA offense operated at a rate outpaced by only the Thunder and Miami Heat; with Collison playing, Memphis scored like something country miles beneath even the Washington Wizards’ and Phoenix Suns’ league-worst offenses.
This feels like it matters, especially because it’s not just a four-game-season-series phenomenon -- this has been happening for the past few years. It reflects the influence Collison had on Memphis last season, when the Grizzlies scored just under nine fewer points-per-100 with Collison on the floor; two regular seasons ago, when their output declined by a whopping 17.5 points-per-100 with Collison out there; and during their 2011 playoff war, when the Grizzlies’ production dropped by just over eight points-per-100 when Collison checked in.
The impact extends to the other end, too; Oklahoma City has also historically scored more, shot a higher percentage from the floor and drawn more fouls with Collison in the lineup against the Grizzlies. With the Thunder offense flagging and stagnating a bit in the absence of Russell Westbrook, every added bit of shot-making, spacing and creativity helps, and so does anything that can contribute to slowing down a Memphis offense that got on a major roll in its final four games against the Los Angeles Clippers. Collison offers both. Thunder coach Scott Brooks ignores that at his own peril.
Memphis Grizzlies: Jerryd Bayless providing punch without leaving too many openings for OKC counterpunches.
From a broad-strokes perspective, the Grizzlies appear to have advantages on the interior, at point guard (thanks to Westbrook’s absence) and in contributor depth, while the Thunder feature the series’ best player, an edge on the wings and home-court advantage. The difference, then, could come down to the contributions of role players on the margins.
One such player is 24-year-old reserve combo guard Bayless, whose 42.3 percent 3-point shooting mark for the Toronto Raptors last season regressed to his career-average 35 percent this year, but who still showed himself capable of providing off-the-bench pop on multiple occasions. More importantly, he played arguably his best basketball of the regular season against Oklahoma City, averaging 18.3 points per game in three outings against the Thunder, shooting 54.3 percent from the floor, 57.1 percent from 3 and 90 percent from the line, while chipping in 3.7 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 28.3 minutes per contest.
The Grizzlies’ offense was considerably more potent against the Thunder with Bayless on the floor, scoring nearly 16 more points per 48 minutes of playing time than when he sat and posting considerable increases in field-goal percentage (+5.3 percent) and 3-point percentage (+10.5 percent). And while Bayless has never exactly been considered a paragon of offensive efficiency in his five-year career, Memphis did tend to get more high-percentage looks against the Thunder D with him on the floor, taking a larger share of shots directly at the basket (36.6 percent of field-goal attempts in the restricted area, up from 31.9 percent with him sitting) and from 3-point range (22.6 percent of total attempts, up from 14.6 percent with him out).
There is, however, a flipside to Bayless’ output against OKC, and it came (as it often does with undersized, offense-first shooting guards) on the defensive end.
When Bayless was on the bench in the three Grizzlies-Thunder matchups this season, Oklahoma City shot 41 percent from the floor, averaged just under 23 free-throw attempts per 48 minutes and scored an average of 92.3 points per 100 possessions. When Bayless played, Oklahoma City made half its shots, got to the line seven more times per 48 minutes and improved its offensive efficiency by a staggering 19.2 points-per-100 possessions.
This tells us two things. For one, the Grizzlies are way better defensively with Tony Allen and/or Mike Conley on the floor than they are with Bayless out there. (Duh.) For another, the demonstrable offensive gains of playing Bayless didn’t come close to outweighing the defensive losses during the regular season.
Here, though, as with everything else, the Westbrook injury looms large. With all due respect to Reggie Jackson, who averaged 17 points, four rebounds and four assists on 44.4 percent shooting in the final four games against the Rockets, no Westbrook means a decreased threat level in the OKC backcourt. That means a bit more freedom for Lionel Hollins in terms of his defensive matchups.
In starting-lineup units, you’d expect Conley to go man-up with Jackson and for Allen to see a lot of time on Kevin Durant whenever Tayshaun Prince isn’t checking him, but Allen could also be used to float a bit to whichever Thunder threat seems most dangerous at the moment, and it would stand to reason that, much as he did in Round 1 against Jamal Crawford, he’d see action as a second-unit dampener for sixth man Kevin Martin. Off the bench, Quincy Pondexter provides another rangy two-three defender who can match up on more potent scorers, too.
All that could provide opportunities for Hollins to hide Bayless for stretches on OKC’s less imposing offensive types (Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, maybe even DeAndre Liggins) to minimize the defensive fallout if the Grizzlies find themselves in need of off-the-dribble quickness, secondary ball-handling and (if the J’s falling) some additional floor spacing, which can be huge for Memphis’ offense. While Bayless didn’t have a good first-round series -- he shot 38.3 percent from the floor, 31.8 percent from 3 and had more turnovers than assists -- he was a key contributor in Memphis’ Game 6 closeout, going 6 for 13 from the floor and 3 for 8 from 3-point land to help keep the Clippers’ guards honest and give his bigs room to operate.
When he’s going well, as he was in Game 6, Bayless can be a legitimate game-changer and chaos agent; when he’s not, he can have an equal and very opposite effect. Memphis could really use the former to score four wins against even a diminished Thunder side.
PREDICTION: Grizzlies in 6.
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
Scott Brooks: The loss of Russell Westbrook has severely limited the Thunder. Given how OKC utilizes Westbrook, he’s one of the most irreplaceable players in the league, a unique force who jump starts his team in the early part of a game and prohibits opponents from focusing solely on Kevin Durant. OKC has many adjustments to make to stay in the championship picture in his absence, and more often than not those responsibilities fall to the head coach.
A large number of basketball observers don’t necessarily think Scott Brooks is the right man to do that job. While he earns good marks in player management and making sure that everyone understands his role clearly, Brooks is not known as a master strategist or in-game genius. Adjusting to life without Westbrook is the ultimate challenge, something that requires a new conception of individual responsibilities and the entire team’s approach to the game. With teams like the Golden State Warriors and Chicago Bulls having accomplished very impressive things without some of their most notable players, Brooks is flirting with unfavorable (if also unfair) comparisons if the Thunder can’t figure out a way to make things work. Losing Westbrook was about as bad a break as a team can get — it also might end up inspiring deeper considerations of Brooks’s ability to guide his team to a title.
Lionel Hollins: It’s been an up-and-down season for Lionel Hollins, equal parts impressive achievements and public disagreements with his bosses. Each experience is important — for all that Hollins has done as Grizzlies’ coach, there’s a sense that he has to prove himself in perpetuity in order to hold onto his job. Perhaps no team has a better sense of their own identity, and yet the man who helped impart that philosophy to them has had a difficult time being ranked among the best coaches in the NBA.
That could be because the Grizzlies’ signature achievement — their defeat of the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the 2011 playoffs — can be (poorly) explained away as an improbable upset rather than the mark of one of the league’s best teams. On the other hand, making it to the conference finals most certainly counts. If the Grizzlies can accomplish that, then perhaps Hollins won’t feel the need to make explicit arguments for his approach any longer.
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