Ron Glover’s Western Conference Semifinals Preview: (5) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (1) Oklahoma City Thunder
Defensive specialist Tayshaun Prince was brought to Memphis to deal with Kevin Durant.
The Memphis Grizzlies are coming off a physical series against the Clippers where they trailed 2-0. The Grizzlies won the next four games by an average of 14 points with a suffocating defense and tough play in the post led by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Houston Rockets in six games. Kevin Durant and the Thunder are still adjusting to life without point guard Russell Westbrook – who was injured in Game 2 of the series.
Grizzlies won season series 2-1.
Reggie Jackson played well in the Houston series. Replacing Russell Westbrook is impossible, but Jackson held his own against Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin and Aaron Brooks. Jackson will have to deal with one of the league’s quickest guards in Mike Conley. Against the Clippers, Conley averaged 17 points, 4 rebounds and 7 assists. Conley was able to get to the hole against the Clippers, but he has to improve his numbers from the floor after shooting 40 percent in the first round. Tony Allen was exceptional in the Clippers series. The nine-year veteran averaged 12 points, 7 rebounds and 2 steals. Allen brings a championship pedigree to a team who feels they are on the cusp of winning the West. Thabo Sefalosha is starting at the two, but the minutes and shots will go to Kevin Martin — who has been in a reserve role.
The impending steel cage match between Kendrick Perkins and Zach Randolph should be more than enough to keep our attention throughout this series. Randolph averaged 22 points and 9 boards — totally dominating the paint and Blake Griffin to the point where the Clippers forward became unglued in Game 6. OKC’s best chance to deal with Randolph is to slide Serge Ibaka over and take their chances with Perkins roughing up Gasol. Randolph has to keep his emotions in check when it comes to Perkins. The bottom line is the Thunder can get by without Perkins while Memphis is dead in the water if Randolph has to miss extended time due to ejections and/or suspensions.
Acquiring Tayshaun Prince in the Rudy Gay trade has paid off great for the Grizzlies. Prince is another player with championship experience. He has played in seven prior playoffs as a member of the Detroit Pistons. All of those accolades go out the window when he goes head up against Kevin Durant — who is averaging 32 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists in the playoffs. Not only has the scoring burden increased for Durant, but also his minutes played. Durant’s minutes have increased from 38 per game in the regular season to nearly 43 minutes in the playoffs. This series is going to be long and grueling for Durant — who will go through stretches where he may have to carry the offense. Thunder head coach Scott Brooks has to monitor Durant’s minutes wisely.
Marc Gasol averaged a playoff career-high of 17 points per game in the first round. He will have his hands full with either the athletic Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins — who is an anvil in the paint. Gasol and Randolph open up the paint area for one another because of their ability to knock down 15 footers consistently. Ibaka has to use his athleticism to gain an advantage over Gasol. Perkins — when assigned has to make his presence felt despite giving up significant size and weight.
Kevin Martin was depended on more in this series as a result of Westbrook’s injury. Martin was appearing in the playoffs for only the second time in his career and the first time in 7 seasons. Martin gave the Thunder about as much in the Houston series as he had in the regular season — scoring close to 14 points per contest. Derek Fisher and Nick Collison are veterans — who can give extended minutes. OKC isn’t particularly deep, but their reserves mesh well with the starters. For Memphis, Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless are good compliments to starters Allen and Conley. Pondexter is an adequate defender and is a decent three-point threat. Bayless is a quick guard who makes the most of his time on the floor. Kenyon Dooling and Darrell Arthur round out Memphis reserves.
Scott Brooks looks uneasy without Russell Westbrook running the offense — the pain in his eyes in undeniable. Lionel Hollins had the same in 2011, as Memphis struggled against the Thunder. Hollins looks more confident and really believes in this scrappy group.
Both teams are considerably different from the two who met in the 2011 Playoffs. Memphis wants to make this a half court series slowly wearing down the Thunder who have no post presence. Once again Gasol and Randolph should feast in the paint. Mike Conley should continue to use his speed to change the tempo when there is an opportunity. Kevin Durant will have work even harder in this series due to the tempo Memphis is looking to set.Defensively, the Grizzlies are looking to throw a blanket over Durant’s supporting cast. Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and Kevin Martin are going to have to step up all the more in this series. The Thunder are 2-2 without Westbrook. Had he suffered the injury in Game 1, we could be talking about the Rockets here.
Grizzlies in six.