Surviving a tough test from a formidable foe with a familiar face was the first step for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2013 playoff run. OKC managed to outlast James Harden and the upstart Houston Rockets in six games, but the Thunder must make key adjustments to stay alive past the second round.
Kevin Durant and Co. will face off with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and the gritty Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizz are fresh off a series victory against the Los Angeles Clippers, having rattled off four straight wins after falling into an 0-2 hole.
OKC will undoubtedly have its hands full with Memphis, but the Thunder could be the benefactors of an on-court incident.
In the Grizzlies’ closeout Game 6, Randolph and Blake Griffin got into an on-court wrestling match partway through the third quarter. Both players grappled to the floor, where Griffin seemed to drive his elbow down on the back of Randolph’s head, while Randolph appeared to grab Griffin’s neck area with his left hand.
If the league decides that Randolph was attempting to choke Griffin, he could be facing a suspension similar to J.R. Smith’s one-game suspension for elbowing Jason Terry in Game 3 of the Knicks/Celtics series. Given how game-changing Z-Bo’s play has been of late, that would be a huge leg up for OKC to start Round 2.
Even if that happens, though, the Thunder will need to adjust to a brand new style of play compared with Houston. The most obvious of which is facing two of the league’s elite post players.
If the Thunder were matched up with nearly any other NBA team, the logical choice for OKC would be to bench Kendrick Perkins.
The ornery big man has gained a reputation as an effective defensive stopper in the post, but as Bill Simmons of Grantland.com points out in this column, the Thunder were a combined minus-30 in the 25 minutes Perk played in Games 4 and 5. He went on to play just four minutes in Game 6, notching two turnovers, one personal foul and a plus/minus of minus-nine.
The Thunder could once again bench the struggling center, but with two elite big men to defend now, head coach Scott Brooks doesn’t have much of a choice.
Vinny Del Negro’s Los Angeles Clippers attempted a small-ball lineup against Memphis in Game 6 (giving just 31 minutes to DeAndre Jordan and the ailing Griffin), but Lionel Hollins continued to stick with his bigs anyway. Doing so led to a closeout win despite a 30-point outburst from Matt Barnes.
Oklahoma City has the athleticism to play a small-ball lineup as well, but doing so against the Gasol/Randolph tandem has yielded poor results. And honestly, emulating Del Negro’s coaching methods is the last thing Scott Brooks needs to do right now.
Giving Durant point guard duties has had mixed results so far, but Francisco Garcia and other Rockets did a tremendous job of denying KD the ball in the first-round series. If the Thunder superstar doesn’t have the ball in his hands consistently against Memphis, the outcome will be bleak.
KD is facing the toughest test of his entire career. He’s without James Harden and Russell Westbrook for the first time, and he’ll be facing a team with some phenomenal perimeter defenders like Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter.
Against Memphis, the Thunder will need to spread the floor by knocking down threes. Relying upon Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha for consistent offensive production has had mixed results, but at least Derek Fisher has been draining shots from beyond the arc with regularity.
Ultimately, this series will come down to the production OKC gets from Serge Ibaka. The shot-blocking machine has made great strides improving his outside shooting touch this season. His ability to extend a rebounder like Z-Bo away from the basket will be paramount in this series.
Nevertheless, Ibaka averaged 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds during the regular season. In the playoffs without Westbrook, he’s averaging 13 points and 8.3 rebounds. Wait, what?
OKC’s front office decided to keep Ibaka over Harden last summer. If the 23-year-old can’t improve his numbers now that he’s the second-best player on the roster, OKC has a huge problem.
The Thunder can match up with the Grizzlies’ frontcourt defensively, but unless Ibaka steps up in a big way on offense while Reggie Jackson continues to play well, the Western Conference juggernaut will be facing an early exit in Round 2.