The Thunder have a tough task ahead of them with the Grizzlies.
The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the postseason as prohibitive favorites in the Western Conference. However, a knee injury that knocked star guard Russell Westbrook out for the remainder of the playoffs has clouded the team's chances of getting back to the NBA Finals.
Standing in their way in the second round is the Memphis Grizzlies, fresh off a first-round victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. With the Grizz, the Thunder should get a formidable foe, and one that enters the second round having beat L.A. in four straight after falling behind 2-0.
The Thunder opened their series against Memphis by getting a 93-91 victory on Sunday. But if they want to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the third consecutive year, they'll need to keep their game up and follow a few of these keys to victory.
OKC needs to play at its own pace on offense.
The Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder have two distinct ways of running their offense. Memphis prefers a slow, deliberate pace; OKC likes to push the ball and play at a frenetic pace.
In fact, the Thunder had the 10th-highest pace factor, which is an estimate of possessions per 48 minutes, during the regular season. They averaged 93.3 possessions. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, had the lowest pace factor, with an average of 88.4 possessions.
Play generally slows down during the playoffs, and offenses become more half-court oriented. But in order to be successful, OKC can’t let Memphis dictate the pace of the game. The Thunder need to stick with what got them here, which is an efficient, fast-paced offense and solid defense. Otherwise, they’re playing right into the Grizzlies’ hands.
Without Westbrook, Durant needs to be assertive on offense.
After Russell Westbrook went down with his knee injury following Game 1 of OKC’s first-round series against the Houston Rockets, Kevin Durant became more assertive on offense.
Durant and Westbrook each scored 29 points in the Thunder’s Game 1 victory. Yet Durant saw an uptick over the remainder of the series without Westbrook on the floor, averaging 34.2 points over the final five games.
However, it wasn’t just scoring. Durant managed to stay efficient despite the increase in field-goal attempts, shooting 48.7 percent over that span. He also became more of a facilitator on the offense, averaging 6.4 assists, in comparison to the 4.6 he posted during the regular season.
It's something we also saw in Oklahoma City's Game 1 victory on Sunday. Durant scored 35 points on 13-of-26 shooting (50 percent) and dished out a game-high six assists. His 12 fourth-quarter points and game-winning shot with 11 seconds remaining also didn't hurt.
Without Westbrook against Memphis, Durant will need to stay aggressive on offense throughout the series. Whether that’s increasing his scoring, having an uptick in his assists or some combination of the two, he’ll need to help fill the void created by Westbrook’s absence, and he did just that in Game 1.
Kevin Martin is more than capable of stepping up, as he showed in Game 1.
The main burden of making up for the loss of Westbrook falls on Durant’s shoulders. But he can’t do it alone. Other players will need to step up.
Two players in particular that can help fill that void are Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka. Martin’s a more than capable scorer, and he’ll need to show it against the Grizzlies if OKC is to advance. After Westbrook went out following Game 1, Martin only averaged 13.2 points over the remaining five games against Houston.
That’s actually a decrease from the 14.0 points he averaged in the regular season, and that won’t cut it against Memphis.
Serge Ibaka also needs to take an increased role. The Thunder know what they’ll get from him as a force in the paint on defense and with rebounding; they also need a similar contribution on offense.
Ibaka averaged 13.2 points in the regular season and shot an incredibly efficient 57.3 percent from the floor. Yet his scoring dipped to 12.2 points and his field-goal percentage dropped to 47.3 percent in Westbrook’s absence against the Rockets.
Martin had a solid Game 1 against Memphis, posting 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Ibaka, on the other hand, only finished with five points on 1-of-10 shooting. So the Thunder got the Game 1 victory without a huge effort from Ibaka, but they don't want to push their luck.
They'll need both Ibaka and Martin to step up.
Slowing down Mike Conley will be key for Oklahoma City.
As my colleague, and current B/R Grizzlies featured columnist, Tom Firme pointed out on Twitter, Mike Conley was dominant in the first-round series against the Clippers. In fact, Conley nearly matched Chris Paul in production.
For the series, @mconley11 had AST-TO ratio of 5, 38.9 % AST, 122 ORtg, 22.7% USG; CP3 had 4.2 AST-TO ratio, 33% AST, 132 ORtg, 25.4% USG.
— Tom Firme (@TFirme) May 4, 2013
As the main facilitator on offense, it’s important for OKC to disrupt Conley. The Thunder did a nice job of that in Game 1, holding him to 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting, with three assists and two turnovers. It’s so far, so good for OKC in that regard, but it’s a trend that needs to continue throughout the series.
The Thunder need to control the glass and limit second-chance opportunities.
It’s going to be difficult enough for the Thunder to beat the Grizzlies in this series. So they can’t make it any harder by giving Memphis second-chance opportunities.
Cleaning up the offensive glass was a strength for Memphis all season. In fact, the Grizzlies’ 1,059 offensive rebounds were third most in the NBA. It also showed up during the first round as Memphis hauled in 62 offensive rebounds, compared to 53 for the Clippers. Not surprisingly, L.A. had the edge after its first two wins, with a 23-12 advantage. From there it was all Memphis, who came back to win four straight.
In OKC’s favor is its ability to rebound on the defensive end. The Thunder were the third-best defensive rebounding team during the regular season. They also did a nice job in Game 1 against Memphis, limiting the Grizzlies to only eight second-chance opportunities and outrebounding them 43-41.
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