After two games, the series hardly looks like a slam dunk for OKC.
Were it not for some game-winning heroics from Kevin Durant (and some missed free throws from Quincy Pondexter), the Oklahoma City Thunder would have lost both games at Chesapeake Energy Arena to open the series.
In Game 2, the Thunder could not capitalize on 19 very efficient points from Derek Fisher (6-of-9 shooting, 4-of-5 from downtown) and a near triple-double from KD (36 points, 11 boards, nine dimes). Kevin Martin and Kendrick Perkins practically slept through the game, combining for 10 points on 3-of-15 shooting, as the Thunder fell at home 99-93.
And just like that, the Memphis Grizzlies had erased OKC's hard-fought home-court advantage and left the reigning conference champs punch-drunk. The Thunder will need an elite effort and renewed toughness to steal a split in Tennessee.
Time: Saturday, May 11, 5:00 p.m. ET
Where: FedExForum, Memphis, Tenn.
Series Record: Tied at 1-1
Game 3 Key Storyline: Can the Thunder Muster Enough Defense?
The Thunder cannot merely outscore the Grizzlies' top-notch defense; they must bring some stout D of their own.
Mike Conley went ballistic in Game 2, dropping a team-high 26 points with 10 boards and nine dimes. If he can keep that up for Memphis, the Thunder will be in a world of trouble. OKC survived Game 1 largely because the Grizzlies starting backcourt shot just 6-of-20 from the field.
Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will flirt with 40 points and 15 to 20 rebounds every game, but the Thunder have to limit the damage elsewhere. Reggie Jackson has a team-worst minus-18 rating in the series, and the second-year player's defense can't live up to Russell Westbrook's standard.
Speaking of team-worst ratings, Kendrick Perkins also posted a minus-18 over Games 1 and 2. He has averaged as many points per game in the series (three) as Serge Ibaka has blocks per game.
After the Thunder enjoyed a four-point advantage in paint scoring in Game 1, they got blown out 50-30 in the painted area for the next game, and much of the blame goes on that Perkins-shaped statue in the middle.
Memphis finished the season 27th in the league in effective field-goal percentage, which adjusts for three-point shots, so OKC must pack the paint and play the odds by forcing the Grizz to take jump shots.
Perkins has to solve his funk as neither Nick Collison nor Hasheem Thabeet is the answer up front. Perk averaged two points and 3.3 boards in the series with the Houston Rockets, and he's managed only three blocks over eight postseason games.
Heading down to Memphis, the Thunder need to clog up the paint and limit second-chance opportunities, because Game 3 will serve as a serious gut check on defense.
Series Star So Far: Kevin Durant
OKC has played like a deep, balanced team all season long, but without Westbrook it looks incredibly one-dimensional.
And Kevin Durant has been that entire dimension. The Durantula has tried to do it all and has succeeded for the most part, but the support is lacking.
Through two games, KD has piled up 71 points, 26 rebounds and 15 dimes. And he's not just a black hole on offense, as shown by the assists and his 50 percent shooting. He's also gone 20-of-22 from the foul line.
If only Derek Fisher and Kevin Martin could manage to shoot well on the same night to buoy the offense, the Thunder wouldn't waste Durant's stellar production. Serge Ibaka thawing out his mid-range game would also be a welcome boost.
Projected Starting Lineups
Thunder: Reggie Jackson, PG; Thabo Sefolosha, SG; Kevin Durant, SF; Serge Ibaka, PF; Kendrick Perkins, C
Grizzlies: Mike Conley, PG; Tony Allen, SG; Tayshaun Prince, SF; Zach Randolph, PF; Marc Gasol, C
Thunder Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Russell Westbrook (knee), out
Grizzlies Injury Report
Thunder Will Win If...
They limit their turnovers and keep the offensive rebounding margin close.
In their Game 2 loss, the Thunder turned the ball over 21 times, more than double the amount from Game 1.
Memphis made adjustments to OKC's use of Kevin Durant as a point forward, causing him to cough up the ball five times, including an untimely flub in the final minute when trailing by four points. In total, the Grizz came up with an astonishing 13 steals (including five from Tony Allen) to just three for OKC in Game 2.
Taking care of the ball will be of paramount importance as the Thunder continue adjusting to life without Russell Westbrook.
But more worrying for Scott Brooks should be the amount of extra scoring chances for Memphis.
Between winning the turnover battle 21 to 11 and dominating the offensive glass 16 to eight, the Grizz attempted 16 more field goals in Game 2. Memphis actually shot worse than OKC (41.9 percent to 42.9 percent) but posted more points through a preponderance of opportunities.
Kevin Durant cannot be the leading rebounder on the Thunder. In the first two games, he's averaged more boards per game (13) than Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins combined (11.5). OKC must solve the gritty, chippy frontcourt of the Grizz and limit their second-chance scoring.
Grizzlies Will Win If...
They get scoring from their backcourt and keep OKC from running a free-throw drill.
Mike Conley went off in Game 1, and that probably would not have happened had Westbrook been in the game. Not only have the Thunder lost Westbrook's 1.8 steals per game, but his freakish athleticism helps pester even the fastest guards.
Instead, Conley had his way with OKC. And since Gasol and Randolph loom so large down low, the Thunder had to pick their poison.
The only problem is that Conley's play tends to be inconsistent. Over a three-game stretch in the L.A. Clippers series, Conley bricked 24 of his 36 field-goal attempts. He shot 34 percent for the entire month of December after hitting 53 percent of his shots in November, typifying his unreliable play.
And if Conley can't provide the backcourt scoring, Memphis lacks other options. Tony Allen shot 5-of-18 in the two games at OKC, and Jerryd Bayless shot 1-of-6 in Game 2, so hopefully Conley feels like it's November and not December.
As for the charity stripe, the Grizz must do their level best to keep the Thunder away from it. They shot a stunning 82.8 percent on free throws in the regular season, the best mark in the league. Through two games in this series, Memphis failed on 19 free throws while OKC has missed just six.
The Grizzlies must foul intelligently and avoid the bonus, as their defense can't stop Kevin Durant and company from sinking their foul shots.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the Thunder are a much worse team without Westbrook. It hamstrings their offense, degrades their defense and forces them to alter their proven game plan.
How will the series stand when it heads back to Oklahoma City?
In their two home games, the Thunder managed only 13 fast-break points; Durant has been busy bringing the ball up instead of getting out on the break, and Jackson lacks the court vision to beat the Grizzlies D in transition.
OKC has a tremendous weapon at its disposal in KD, but even his gaudy production just barely earned a split at home. While the Thunder are still too talented to fall into a 3-1 series hole, their prospects for the conference finals look gloomy.
The Grizzlies will falter on the offensive end in one of their games at home, but it won't be Game 3.
Prediction: Grizzlies 96, Thunder 90