May is here, the birds are chirping, and we have two second round playoff series' to take in on Sunday afternoon. If that doesn't turn your engine over, then you're on the wrong website.
This is the sort of game League Pass freaks look forward to on a Tuesday night, featuring two teams all full of fresh faces, rotations and game-to-game mindsets that are ever-evolving. For a matchup like this to show up in the second round of the playoffs, even grabbing top billing (or a slot as the opening act, whatever, Debbie Downer) on ABC's playoff lineup on the first day of May? It's fantastic. Some sort of hoop karma, an endowment for those of us who had to sit through all the noise from Miami all season.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that neither Oklahoma City nor Memphis completely resembles the teams that were chugging around in mid-season. The Thunder's offense has shot way up and its defense has returned to form with Jeff Green's minutes being replaced by Serge Ibaka, the presence of Kendrick Perkins, and the emergence of James Harden in the second half of the season. Memphis' offense has sort of tailed off with the replacement of Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo (though he still plays good minutes) with Tony Allen, Shane Battier, and Sam Young in the team's rotation, but its defense will have your knees knocking. These two teams are still figuring it out.
Does that mean the regular season meetings, with Memphis taking three of four against OKC, are out the window? I don't think so. Unlike last year, teams have to worry about Oklahoma City's offense more than anything, including their ability to get to the line. Memphis wasn't exactly great guns at stopping teams from getting to the line, in fact they were rather average, but they can defend and close out overall. That will mean something.
But will the Grizzlies have enough in the tank on the offensive end? This would seem to be Zach Randolph's decision. Because while Thunder big forward Serge Ibaka can block with the rest of them, he's still a second-year player who can bite on head fakes with the best of them. If Zach runs it right, he can have the big man in foul trouble in no time at all.
The problem there is that Matt Bonner won't be checking in soon after. And all the mid-range jumpers both Darrell Arthur and Sam Young enjoyed against the Spurs likely won't show up against Ibaka, Nick Collison, and Oklahoma City's long armed defenders on the wing. It's hard to see the things that worked for Memphis against San Antonio, offensively, working against Oklahoma City. That's about as simple as I can put it.
The killer, as it usually is, is the Thunder's ability to get to the line. Usually refs side with the more aggressive defenders, especially those with a growing reputation like Memphis, when it comes time to blow the whistle or keep cool. And yet the Thunder keep getting call after call -- though this isn't a complaint or me telling you that this team doesn't deserve those whistles. Rarely does that whistle carry over into the postseason, but though Kenyon Martin and Nene's "I give up, I'm just going to grab you"-fouls played a part, the Thunder spent an eternity on the line against Denver.
I'll give the Grizzlies two wins, because I trust in their competitive spirit and believe they can take a win based on defense (and possibly calls gone their way, though I hope that doesn't sound like faint praise) and another because nobody can match the tenacity of a cornered animal trying to keep its season alive.
But Oklahoma City brings the all-around goods, these days. And as good as Memphis has been to us, I don't think they're accomplished enough offensively to keep this thing moving onto the third round.
My pick? Thunder in six.
Hey, there, sports fans! Welcome back to "PLAAAAAAAAAAYOFFS!" Boy, that first round was something else, huh? Chock full of buzzer beaters, controversy, brilliant performances, Hedo Turkoglu and Josh McRoberts. With the field now whittled down to eight teams, it's time for the conference semifinals. Who are the contenders and who are the pretenders? Who can run with the big dogs and who should stay on the porch? Who's more grizzled?
Here to offer made-up answers to these and other pressing questions about Thunder/Grizzlies are 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center-turned-celebrity motivational speaker Mark Eaton and 310-year veteran/olde-tyme crustbucket Ol' Man Howard!
Ol' Man Howard: Begin talking about Oklahoma City and Memphis.
Mark Eaton: Olie, there's just so much to love about both of these teams.
OMH: Yip. Lookin' forward to this.
ME: Tony Allen, whose dogged defense and relentless energy persist, like Gen. Douglas McArthur, in reminding us that to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Zach Randolph, living proof that with positive attitudes and Spanish friends, we can overcome the metaphorical alleged drug-ring funding of our respective pasts and become unguardable, physically and spiritually. Greivis Vasquez, whose Game 6 against the San Antonio Spurs taught us that readiness is all, and Darrell Arthur, who is all like, "Screw you, rumors of kidney problems; I am very, very good."
OMH: They're all on Memphis.
ME: Is that right? Hamed Haddadi, then, whose face and lumbering gladden my heart; were I Iranian or he a well-respected life coach, we would be kinsmen. O.J. Mayo, who shows that not even a name like Ovinton can keep you down if you work hard enough. Sam Young, with energy and vitality enough for 10 men with faces as old-looking as his own.
OMH: Also all Grizzlies.
ME: Hmm. Bryant Reeves? Blue Edwards? Stromile Swift?
OMH: No longer Grizzlies, but Grizzlies, all the same.
ME: Hmm. Gosh, there's just so much to love about them. What's there to love about Oklahoma City, again?
ME: … Oh. … BUT! Does Oklahoma City have an adorably hirsute mascot?
ME: Oh, come on! Really? Jeezum Crow.
OMH: These games will excite the blood, in the way that most acts of extreme violence excite the blood. A baby-faced sword of the Son of Man is comin' to cut Memphis stem to stern; these Grizzlies ain't long for the world. Thunder in five.
ME: But I have all these Grit Grind T-shirts. Crap. … You know what? Screw you, rumors of kidney problems. Grizzlies in six.
(Dan thinks the Thunder will win in six games.)
The regular season counts, but the postseason is where reputations are made. Tracy McGrady never won a playoff series and will always be seen as a disappointment. Derek Fisher lacks several fundamental basketball skills but will always be seen as a champion because he makes big shots when it counts. Chauncey Billups owes his entire nickname to the 2004 playoffs. The point being that playoff performance skews national perception of NBA players beyond all reason. In that vein, behold the BDL Reputations Index, your guide to what's at stake for the top names in the first round.
Russell Westbrook: Westbrook did enough this season to be considered a star, no matter his postseason. But a few rough performances in the first round -- in particular his 30-shot disaster in OKC's only loss to Denver -- have made most observers think that he's not anywhere close to becoming a real superstar. To Westbrook's credit, that same disregard for common decency is also what made him have a stellar year for the Thunder. Facing Mike Conley at the point for Memphis, Westbrook has a favorable matchup for the series. In all likelihood, though, he'll also get a healthy dose of Tony Allen. If Westbrook can't perform well against a quality defender like Allen, expect more critics to argue that he's keeping his superior teammate Kevin Durant from realizing his full potential.
Kendrick Perkins: Perk has been widely identified as a stellar post defender for several seasons, but his reputation has taken on near-mythic proportions after his trade from Boston to Oklahoma City. With the Celtics looking far weaker inside and the Thunder emerging as a championship threat, Perkins has shifted the NBA landscape considerably. His exact impact, though, will get an accurate measurement in how effectively he handles the Memphis big man tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Both players would put up solid numbers against any competition. A domination of Perkins and Serge Ibaka would, even in a Thunder series win, would help diminish Perkins' current standing.
Zach Randolph: Improbably, Z-Bo is now the toast of the NBA only two seasons after being considered a walking catastrophe. He is for all intents and purposes in the league's good graces. All that matters for his reputation now is the degree to which he'll be celebrated. Clearly, Randolph is now considered a star. If he can push around Ibaka and Perkins, he may become a consensus choice as one of the top power forwards in the league. Nobody could have predicted that Randolph would have become so easy to root for. Let no one way that public opinion can't change.
Tony Allen: Despite his ascension to local stardom in Memphis, Allen is still a trick-or-treat kind of player. While he made some huge plays in Game 6 against the Spurs, he also made enough questionable decisions on offense to get pulled in the closing minutes. Against the Thunder, he'll probably spend a good deal of time on both Durant and Westbrook. If he can contain either, or both, expect to find many more basketball fans willing to overlook his problems.
My pick? The Thunder in six.