Down 2-1 with a tough road matchup ahead of them, the Oklahoma City Thunder is in desperate need of a blueprint for victory in their series against the Memphis Grizzlies. It won't be easy, but adjustments can be made, and they have to do without their second-leading scorer.
Okay, so no Russell Westbrook, two road games in a row—how are they supposed to get back in the fight?
First things first, regaining the tempo is goal No. 1.
Memphis plays a very slowed down, grinding type of basketball. Physical play, pounding the glass, playing defense—all are qualities that epitomize how the Grizz get money.
The Grizzlies live or die in this series by forcing Oklahoma City to play slow, and conversely, the Thunder live or die by forcing Memphis to play fast.
The Thunder do not have any reliable post-up players, and no, Kevin Durant backing a smaller defender down and shooting a turnaround 12 feet from the hoop doesn’t count.
The Thunder do not have a reliable option that can demand the ball on the block and finish with an up-and-under or hook shot consistently. The lack of a reliable post option means that when possessions slow down, a lot of pressure is placed upon the ball carrier for OKC to make a play.
This is why possessions tend to feature a lot of dribbling, a lot of standing and waiting for shooters to get free of screens, and plenty of times where forced low shot clock attempts occur.
OKC can scrape by at times at this type of pace, but as evidenced by how close this series has been, the Thunder have yet to run away with any game so far because of the way the tempo has played out. The Thunder are a jump shooting team by and large aside from the slashing from Westbrook and Durant.
Jump shots at this pace mean there is very little separation if everyone is in a man-to-man look, and when you have a lengthy team like Memphis covering you, the defense is even more smothering. OKC has to get better looks, and part of that will come from whether they can trigger transition looks.
In order to trigger fast-break opportunities, the Thunder desperately need to box out on defensive boards to hit guys leaking out with outlet passes, and they also need to force some turnovers.
The Grizzlies only turned the ball over 10 times in Game 2, and considering OKC gave the ball up 19 times, Memphis at times beat OKC at their own game by gambling in the passing lane and winning with a finish at the other end.
If OKC can keep Memphis off the offensive boards and force turnovers, they can shift the tempo in their favor, and in turn the collective offense will come a lot easier.
Controlling tempo is awesome, but it doesn’t mean you can put the ball in the hoop. We all know Kevin Durant can put the ball in the hoop, but can his teammates do it as well? The Thunder's next goal is to ensure there is a better collective performance.
Kevin Durant all by his lonesome outscored his four fellow starters combined, and sure, that’s certainly a silly stat considering who his teammates are, but regardless, it’s telling of where virtually all of their offense is coming from at this point.
In Game 2, the Grizzlies got a near triple-double from their floor general in Mike Conley, and their towering frontcourt of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph were solid combining for 50 points.
Plain and simple, it’s a battle between an individual in KD, and an almost three-headed monster at this point between Conley, Gasol and Randolph. Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are being systematically destroyed by their matchups.
Ibaka could not keep Randolph from getting where he wanted in the paint, Gasol’s length was just too much for Kendrick Perkins, and Mike Conley looked like he had gamesliders on going up against Jackson. Kevin Durant’s supporting cast needs to step up, and most glaringly, Kendrick Perkins was ineffective in yet another game.
Four points, three turnovers and six boards is not the business, and when you can’t keep your emotions in check, it only leads to more struggles.
In Game 2, Perkins was visibly frustrated throughout. He was missing chippies at the rim, pouting a little more than he usually does and his turnovers (and technical foul) in key moments were momentum killers for OKC.
Perkins has to at least do what he can to halt Gasol, or otherwise he is virtually useless aside from getting a couple boards here and there.
Whether it’s his fellow starters or bench unit, Kevin Durant needs way more help. Derek Fisher is the only one who really stepped up offensively with 19 points off the bench, but Kevin Martin had an atrocious Game 2, when he shot 2-of-11 with six points after scoring 25 points in Game 1.
Neither team shot the ball well in Game 2, but when you win the rebounding battle like Memphis did, you don’t have to. OKC was outrebounded by a margin of eight, and although it doesn’t sound significant, every possession matters when the pace is as slow as it has been.
Will the Thunder win the series?
Aside from pushing the pace, keeping turnovers down and ensuring the auxiliary players step up, OKC has to win the battle on the boards. They need to prevent Memphis from getting extra possessions, and they have to keep Memphis stuck on one-and-done looks so they can force the action on the other end.
The Thunder have a tough task ahead of them going on the road, but they are capable of stealing one to send the series back to OKC—assuming they make the necessary adjustments, of course.
The playoffs are all about momentum, and if the Thunder regain it, they’ll be a lock to make it back to the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row.