The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) for the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie to offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
So we’re doing this again, eh?
Oklahoma City and Memphis don’t have nearly the same enmity or respect or mixture of the two that the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers have, or the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat boast. There’s not a level of disgust there that will carry over into fisticuffs or even furrowed brows. These teams are meeting for the third postseason in four years, though, and we’d call this turn the rubber match if we didn’t think both outfits had a strong chance to hook up in 2015 or '16 as well.
The Thunder has been hot from the outset, even if the team hasn’t truly turned into a fully realized version of itself until the dawn of spring. Guard Russell Westbrook only recently returned to form, struggling in response to a torn meniscus suffered nearly a year ago in a playoff series against the Houston Rockets, and the two follow-up surgeries the frightening injury necessitated. Westbrook, as is his custom even when he is healthy, marked his return with equal amounts brilliant and too-forced play in the bouts between operations, though his fulminations rarely took away from the Thunder’s chances at a win. Unless the team was on national TV, of course.
Over the last month, though, Westbrook has been playing the finest basketball of his career. Just 25, he still notches an assist on 40 percent of the possessions he uses up, his rebounding has never been better, and though he’s tossing up more shots per minute than ever before, it’s hardly taken away from the work of his more-tenured teammate.
Because Kevin Durant has come through with an MVP season. He came through with it without Russell, and with Russell both at his best and still-recovering worst when the two shared a court. He’s been the best player in the league this year, he’s helped drag the Thunder to the second-best record in the NBA with Westbrook gone for nearly half of his team’s games and former teammate James Harden working out of Houston, and he’ll rightfully take home the league’s MVP award sometime later this spring.
It’s Houston that ticks Oklahoma City off most, not Memphis. The Grizzlies were the ones that ended OKC’s season last year with Westbrook on the sidelines, but Memphis didn’t exactly preen after downing a Thunder team working without its All-Star point guard, and Westbrook’s personal dartboard is likely filled with far more pictures of Houston guard Patrick Beverley (who caused Russell’s meniscus tear) than anyone else.
That’s not to say Memphis doesn’t have Oklahoma City’s attention. The Grizzlies clawed their way into the playoff bracket in the last week of the regular season, working up a 33-13 record once Marc Gasol returned from an early season knee injury, slowing the pace along the way and turning in a stellar defensive effort. Other factors have aided in this return to form — Courtney Lee was a fantastic midseason acquisition, Mike Conley seems to get better by the game — but by and large this is the same Grizzlies crew, hoping to beat you in spite of the game plan that you think you’ve already sussed out.
The problem here is that nobody has an answer for Durant, who ended his season with a brilliant 42-point, six-assist effort on Wednesday night. OKC is nearly a top-five team on both ends of the court in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, and luring Durant into beating you with a singular effort — putting up huge points while the others struggle around him — is tougher than ever. The spacing and ball movement are improving, and while this may not be enough to topple last year’s NBA finalists later on in the postseason, it should be enough to gain revenge on the team that ended Oklahoma City’s season in 2013.
They’ll have Westbrook this time around, though that’s only part of it. Durant is in the heat of a year for the ages, and the respect that Memphis has earned via its playoff series with the Thunder in 2011 and '13 may hurt the Grizzlies as much as help. The Thunder know what’s coming.
That won’t keep them from bruising easily, though. Memphis doesn’t go down without a fight.
Prediction: Thunder in 6.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
What the hell are we about to see?
No, seriously: The more I look at the matchups, the numbers and the recent history, the less of a bead I feel I have on what's about to happen.
You can toss last year's second-round series thanks to the whole "no Russell Westbrook" thing. This season's first matchup came while Marc Gasol and Thabo Sefolosha were out of action, before the Jerryd Bayless-Courtney Lee deal that reshaped Memphis' wing rotation, and featured 32 minutes of pure uncut Jon Leuer. (He has played 69 minutes in the last five weeks. He's not likely to be a factor here.) Westbrook missed meeting No. 2, which saw the newly acquired Lee and Mike Conley roast the Thunder backcourt.
Conley and Westbrook were absent for Part III, in which Lee and backup point guard Nick Calathes struggled against OKC's length and Serge Ibaka gained a measure of revenge on Zach Randolph for last year's Round 2 matchup. The season series finale was played without Kendrick Perkins (groin strain) and with Sefolosha leaving after just four minutes (ditto), and saw Mike Miller score 19 points in the fourth quarter (pretty weird) to fuel a Memphis rally that fell short because Kevin Durant scored 30 points after halftime (not that weird).
Memphis has the third-best record in the NBA (33-13) since getting Gasol back from his MCL strain on Jan. 14, with OKC (31-14) right behind them. The Grizzlies enter the postseason having won five straight and 10 of their last 14 to fend off the Phoenix Suns and overtake the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 7 seed. They've basically been playing playoff basketball for four straight months, having to claw their way back from a 10-15 start, and they've got Gasol (averaging about 17 points, 8.5 rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block), Conley (about 17.5 points, six assists against two turnovers, three rebounds and 1.5 steals) and Randolph (about 19 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 assists) all hitting their stride over their last 15 games.
The Thunder had a curious end to the season, dropping games to the reeling Indiana Pacers and the injury-ravaged New Orleans Pelicans, and needing a game-saving dunk by Durant on the season's final night to knock off the Detroit Pistons and clinch second place. But the late-season record mattered less to Scott Brooks and company than successfully reintegrating the long-injured Perkins and Sefolosha back into the lineup and rediscovering their rhythm, and the latest signs seem promising.
In 62 minutes of floor time over their last four regular-season appearances, the Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka-Perkins-Sefolosha starting five outscored opponents by just under 21 points per 100 possessions, a gigantic number. They scored at a clip that would rival the Los Angeles Clippers for the best mark in the NBA, while allowing fewer points per possession than the league-leading Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls. They're getting back to locking down the paint, disrupting passing lanes, recovering to shooters and clearing the glass, which allows for the likes of Durant and Westbrook (and, in second-unit lineups, potential X-factor Reggie Jackson) to take advantage of their athleticism and ram the ball down opponents' throats in transition. OKC ranks sixth in the league in fast-break points per game; Memphis, as you might expect based on their reliance on two interior behemoths, ranks 19th among 30 NBA teams in fast-break points allowed per game. Floor balance will be key for the Grizzlies, who have to force the Thunder to beat their set half-court defense (second-stingiest in the league since Gasol's return) as often as possible, and can't afford to give up easy buckets.
Will Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger give Durant a variety of looks, rotating among Prince's length, Tony Allen's aggressive D, and the evidently forgotten James Johnson's length and aggressive D? Can Memphis keep things close enough throughout the first 43 minutes to bring their remarkable regular-season record in "clutch" time — 33-16 in games where the score was within five points in the final five minutes, outscoring opponents by a staggering 26.2 points per 100 possessions over 167 such minutes — to bear in the playoffs? Can all-of-a-sudden-iron-man Miller make OKC pay for packing the paint the way he did for the Miami Heat in the 2012 finals (and against the San Antonio Spurs last summer)?
Will first-year coach Joerger be in over his head in a matchup with playoff veteran Brooks? Will Brooks' tendency toward sticking with unproductive lineups and making unimaginative offensive calls late in tight games give Memphis a chance to steal one a game at Chesapeake Energy Arena? Is Westbrook — who sure seems to be back to his old tricks, averaging 24 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals in just 29 minutes over his past 15 games — ready to show the playoff-watching world just what we missed after last year's meniscus tear?
That's the problem with one big question; when you really think about it, it turns into an awful lot of little questions, and in the case of this particular series, I'm largely at a loss. So in the absence of more definitive data, I'll go with a gut feeling that also seems to make logical sense — when in doubt, pick the team with the nearly unstoppable scoring machine who's on a mission to take over the league. Even if it bums you out to say goodbye to such a fun Grizz team.
Prediction: Thunder in 6.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
There are several ways we typically judge the quality of a playoff series: its length, the extent to which the teams’ styles complement each other, their past matchups, etc. By all these criteria, this series should deliver. The Grizzlies have rebounded from early difficulties and injuries to reestablish themselves as the tough-minded team they have been for several seasons, which suggests that they won’t easily bend to the will of the ostensible favorites. The Thunder also serve as a stylistic contrast to the Grizzlies, even if they’re not a pure finesse team. On top of all that, the Grizzlies ousted the top-seeded Thunder from the playoffs after Russell Westbrook went down in the previous series. It’s easy to predict that Westbrook will want to prove that he would have been a difference maker.
More than all that, though, this series takes on special meaning because it comes after a truly special regular season from Kevin Durant. The OKC superstar was already acknowledged as one of the NBA’s two best players, but he elevated his game in virtually every conceivable manner and stands to collect his first MVP award in a few weeks. This postseason is not just an opportunity for the Thunder to re-enter the championship discussion, but a chance for Durant to prove that his regular season marks an ascendance to the same level (and/or above) as that of LeBron James.
Other series may be better on a team-vs.-team basis, but Durant’s voyage through the playoffs looks like the most interesting storyline of the entire postseason. That journey starts here. Don’t miss it — you’ll either see a watershed moment in his career or a setback full of intrigue.
Rating: 9 out of 10 Lil B hate-tweets
Prediction: Thunder in 6.