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NBA Western Conference Semifinals Preview: Thunder vs. Grizzlies

Will Robinson |
May 5, 2013 | 2:52 p.m. PDT

Senior Sports Editor

The Thunder don't have the high-scoring James Harden for this rematch (Peggy Davis/Wikimedia Commons).
The Thunder don't have the high-scoring James Harden for this rematch (Peggy Davis/Wikimedia Commons).
Well, that was certainly unexpected, wasn’t it? Please stand up if you predicted Russell Westbrook would injure himself, resulting in the No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder sweating out Games 4 and 5 against the No. 8 Houston Rockets before a necessary Kevin Durant takeover and Kevin Martin explosion transpired in Game 6. No one? Really?

Before the playoffs began, the Thunder were penciled in to roll their way to the Western Conference Finals and almost a lock to meet the Miami Heat in the Finals. Now? Their path is much more difficult, especially since their opponent in the Conference Semifinals is the fifth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, a team coming on strong. Led by budding point guard Mike Conley, the all-around greatness of Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, and the crazy, wily low-post ways of Zach Randolph, aka “Z-Bo,” the Grizz bounced back from two crushing games in Los Angeles to roll four straight double-digit wins against the No. 4 Clippers.

What to expect from Oklahoma City

Besides Durant running everything, as his partner-in-crime watches from the bench? Not sure. After playing historically horrendous defense for a pair of games against former comrade James Harden’s Rockets, and after a shaky first quarter in Game 6, it appeared OKC found some of its toughness, allowing fewer points in each subsequent quarter (29, 25, 23 and 17). Reggie Jackson’s inclusion in the starting lineup has brought some of the energy Westbrook typically provides, although his scoring helps Durant when the latter draws double teams. Jackson has shown he can score in bursts when necessary. The Jackson-Derek Fisher-Martin-Durant-Nick Collison lineup has done well in limited time, outscoring opponents by .13 points per possession (PPP).

What to expect from Memphis

Hardnosed defense, that’s for sure. Maybe even some Z-Bo forearm shivers too, for good measure. The Grizzlies allowed the second fewest points per possession (.974) in the NBA, and with the addition of Tayshaun Prince in the Rudy Gay trade, Gasol and Tony Allen’s crew has allowed a filthy .93 PPP and outscored their opponents by 0.13 points per possession. So not only do they shut people down with their starting five, they outscore them by a healthy margin. To compare, Miami’s main unit is +0.12. The word for that is “stifling.” 

The Thunder need an elevated effort from Serge Ibaka (Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons).
The Thunder need an elevated effort from Serge Ibaka (Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons).
X-Factors

Oklahoma City: Serge Ibaka

To put it simply, Ibaka needs to get his s--t together. As the de facto second-best player on OKC, he needs to rack up more than his season averages of 13.2 rebounds and 7.7 rebounds per game. He’s practically at that right now through six games, and in four games against Houston without Westbrook, he has not made a marked improvement (12.3-8.0). The Thunder won Game 1 today, but Ibaka’s 1-for-10 performance certaintly wasn’t the reason why. Durant needs the help too, because Martin can only do so much off the pine. 

C’mon, Serge. It’s now or never (or, well, next year, when people will constantly bring up that you could have ended the previous series in four games after comically missing a 'gimme’ putback or that general manager Sam Presti picked you over Harden. It’s your call!)

Memphis: Mike Conley

This seems like such an easy choice, but hold on. Conley has looked very good through one series, posting some fantastic lines and being able to score if he needs to (23 points with seven field goal attempts in Game 6!) or dish it out (three games featured over nine assists, two above 10). Though Chris Paul compiled a better series statistically, his team is not the one that advanced. Conley’s teammates will need to keep contributing in different forms (such as the random Tony Allen almost-triple-double in Game 6 and Randolph’s continued resurgence), but the sixth-year point guard will have to lead the charge.

Matchup to watch: Lionel Hollins vs. Scott Brooks on who can make worse coaching moves

Wait, let’s try that again.

Matchup to watch: Z-Bo vs. Kendrick Perkins, UFC Undercard

Sorry, getting closer.

Matchup to watch: Zach Randolph vs. Serge Ibaka

Prediction:

When both teams were greener in 2011, this series went 7 games in a truly epic series that included a triple-overtime affair. This time, things are different. Westbrook, a much better player than he was two years ago, was the key then. But he’s gone now. It’s on Durant’s shoulders and slight frame to take it to the Grizzlies’ sheer size. While Durant is undoubtedly the best player in the series, the next three are on Hollins’ side. It’s tough to pick against one who just completed an insanely efficient season, but Memphis pulls this out in 6 games, as its defense, advantage on the glass, and point guard edge prove too much for Brooks.



 

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