By Ryan Rodriguez
We get a rematch of last year’s Western Conference semifinals, which the Grizzlies won 4-1, while Russell Westbrook watched the first ever games of his life from the sidelines. Both teams have had to deal with injuries to key players this season (Westbrook and Marc Gasol), while the Grizzlies had to break in a new coach who wanted to change their identity (really, Dave Joeger, you think the Grizz should be a running team), but in the end, both teams weathered their storms and put themselves into the playoffs with a chance to succeed. These are two proud Western Conference teams that have been battle-tested over the last several years through tough playoff series’, and will no doubt bring the requisite playoff intensity that gets everybody geeked up for the playoffs. I expect these contrasting styles to bring out the best in each team and provide compelling viewing throughout a long series.
Regular season match-up
The Thunder took the regular season series 3-1, however, there was only one game where these teams were both at full strength, the final match-up on February 28th, which the Thunder won at home 113-107. Despite only seeing each other’s real team once, these two teams are plenty familiar with each other, as they have faced off in two of the last three playoffs and will know what to expect from the other.
They say styles make series’, and if that is the case, these two should be in for one hell of a series. The Thunder are led by their perimeter titans, soon to be league MVP Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, while the Grizz, for as great as Mike Conley has been, are led by the inside tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. This leads to a contrast in pace of play, as the Thunder look to get out in the open court and let their athleticism take over (95.4 possessions per game, 9th in league), while the Grizz work their high post/low post attack, requiring time and precise movement, resulting in the slowest pace in the league at 89.9. The Grizz will most definitely look to limit the possessions in each game, knowing that more possessions will allow for the Thunder’s superior talent to take over and tip the game in their favor.
This stylistic match-up bears out one key area where the Grizz might need to break from form in order to win the series, and that is 3-point shots. Not only is the 3-pointer a great equalizer for an underdog, it is a point of relative deficiency in an other wise airtight Thunder defense, and something that the three averse Grizzlies (14 attempts per game, 30th in the league) will have to take advantage of. The Thunder will no doubt be paying attention to the interior threats that the Grizz pose, constantly using wings to dig in on post ups from the Fat Bros, before using their length and speed to recover on the shooters behind the 3-point line.
The problem the Thunder have is they give up an insane amount of 3s per game (24, 28th in the league) because they sometimes trust their length so much, they believe they will negate any good look a team gets. They have been right for the most part, as they only allowed teams to shoot at a league average (36%) from deep, but that is factoring in teams that don’t have the post presence the Grizz do.
I believe the Grizz should work to position Mike Miller (45.9%) and Mike Conley (36.1%) in spots that force their defenders to make a decision between digging down for help on the post or sticking close to their assignment. This can result in either 1-on-1 opportunities for the Fat Bros or wide open shooters from the only two players the Grizz can consistently rely on from deep.
The individual match-up that I will be most interested to watch and believe will have a huge impact on the series is the battle between the point guards. Everybody knows about Russ and everything that he brings, and sometimes takes away from the Thunder, but sleep on Mike Conley at your own risk because he is an undercover baller and someone who has worked his way into fringe All Star status. The best part about both of these guys is that they bring effort on both sides of the ball, with Russ focusing a little more on offense and Conley focusing a little more on defense.
We all saw last year how much trouble the Thunder are in when Russ is not around for insane drives, playmaking, and general havoc causing play, but I think the Grizz would be even more lost if Conley was not around or held down in this series. They do not have anyone who can come close to being a lead guard the way Conley plays the position. Each one, despite bigger stars at other positions, hold the key to each team’s success, if due to nothing more than having the ball in their hands the most. I don’t know if this match-up will ultimately determine the series, but I’d venture to say whoever wins it will give their team a big upper hand.
Sports VU goodie
The NBA has been using a technology called Sports VU all year in order to gather information on every player in every game, tracking their movement and various stats using six cameras in each arena. These stats have yielded some fun stuff for us fans to crunch, and they can be used to help us understand the game more. For each series and team, I will look at one player or one stat that will be something to watch out for in the series.
For the Thunder, I want to point attention to the overall defender that Serge Ibaka has become. He used to be strictly a weak-side help defender, coming in for devastating blocks, but very undeveloped when it came to on-ball defense. Well those days are over, as he is now one of the top defenders in the league, someone capable of more than holding his own against high profile low-post scorers.
Case in point, he faced 9.5 shots at the rim this season, good for 6th most in the league, and finished the season with the 3rd best opponents FG% at the rim at 43.9%. For reference, rim protector de juor Roy Hibbert is only slightly better at 41.4%.
For Memphis, it all comes back to my boy Mike Conley, who is far and away the Grizz’s dominant ball handler. For example, Conley averages 86.7 touches per game (6th in the league), while the only other Grizzlies to average more than even 50 touches per game are Z Bo and Marc Gasol. That means no other guard even touches the ball even an average amount of time.
In terms of time of possession, Conley has the ball in his hands 7.3 minutes (4th) while no other Grizzly averages more than 1.8 (Z Bo). See, I wasn’t joking when I said his match-up against Russ is going to be huge.
BREAKING: Pack up point guard Nick Calathes was suspended late Friday for 20 games for having the drug Tamoxifen in his system, a banned substance.