Who will take Game 3?
Momentum often shifts over the course of a seven-game series, seesawing between two teams exchanging blows and trading wins, settling on the side that most recently emerged victorious. That's how it works.
The NBA playoffs are very much impulsive. Single wins can swing the entire series, so there's this natural need to believe the latest victor has an immediate edge.
Using that logic, the seventh-place Grizzlies have an advantage over the second-place Thunder as the two teams shuffle off to Memphis.
In Game 2, the Grizzlies controlled the pace, stripping the Thunder of the transition opportunities that were so frequent in Game 1. They also added a little offensive flavor to their defensive grind by flirting with perfection at the free-throw line and running an uncharacteristically efficient offense.
Stealing a victory from the Thunder at home—where they were 34-7 during the regular season—isn't to be overlooked either. Oklahoma City is a difficult place to win, but the Grizzlies came in defending and scoring, ready to lop the Thunder off their Game 1 high.
After a win in hostile territory, the Grizzlies must have the edge entering Game 3.
That all depends on whether Game 2 is a realistic standard to which the Grizzlies can be held.
Memphis' Offensive Explosion
When the Grizzlies top 100 points, they're going to win...because they don't exceed 100 points often.
Through 82 regular-season games, the Grizzlies scored 100 or more points just 27 times with a 23-4 record. In Game 1, they barely cleared 85, resembling the offensively challenged team we bore witness to all year.
Game 2 was different. The ball moved, shots fell and the Grizzlies dropped 111 points on a usually stout Oklahoma City defense. By Grizzlies offensive standards, they were flawless. All they must do is remain faultless for Game 3, and they're fine.
Therein lies the problem.
The Grizzlies aren't capable of regularly duplicating potent, show-stomping offensive performances like these. They ranked 16th in offensive efficiency during the regular season, and Game 2 was only the sixth time all year—regular season and playoffs—when they breached 111 points.
|Memphis' Above-Average Game 2|
This level of offensive production, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes explains, isn't sustainable:
The Grizzlies aren't going to shoot like this often. On the season, Memphis shot 46.4 percent from the field, 35.3 percent from long distance and 74.1 percent from the line. Its offense ranked just 16th in the league, per NBA.com, and guys like Udrih and Allen won't often combine for 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
Even if the Thunder are uniquely vulnerable against the three, Memphis doesn't have the long-range prowess necessary to take advantage of that weakness. It shot the fewest triples in the NBA this year by a hefty margin, per NBA.com. Death from distance just isn't in the Grizzlies' DNA.
Mike Miller can be counted on to hit threes. Connecting on 3-of-4 from deep isn't anything new for him. Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley can all be relied upon to score too. But Game 2 was not an accurate depiction of the Grizzlies offense.
By and large, they don't get to the free-throw line. When they do, they're not converting almost 90 percent of their attempts. Beno Udrih and Courtney Lee won't routinely combine for 30 points. Three-pointers won't be drained with Kevin Durant-like efficiency.
Scoring in volume just isn't a natural occurrence for the Grizzlies. What they did on the offensive end in Game 2 was a collective anomaly, not something we can expect to see in coming games.
Stifling the Thunder
Suffocating the Thunder offense is a task not many teams are up to. On Monday night, the Grizzlies were.
The Thunder shot 39.8 percent from the floor overall, and just 30 percent from beyond the arc. Their ball movement was nonexistent in the first quarter when the Grizzlies jumped out to an early eight-point lead.
Crisp, quick passes were made through the final three quarters of regulation, but the Thunder resorted to forcing the action in overtime, rarely passing, frequently dribbling into double-teams and well-placed Memphis traps.
Here's the thing: Despite struggling mightily on the offensive end, the Thunder almost won.
And here's the other thing: Pallid offensive displays are an oddity for Oklahoma City.
Just as the Grizzlies rarely win games by eclipsing huge point totals, the Thunder don't lose games because of inferior, disorganized offensive execution. They, unlike the Grizzlies, finished in the top seven of offensive efficiency during the regular season.
Shooting under 40 percent from the floor is severely atypical of the Thunder. They converted under 40 percent of their field-goal attempts for an entire game only nine times all year before Game 2. And when that happened, the Thunder weren't as good. They usually lost (2-7).
But there was nothing usual about their offense in Game 2. When facing elite defensive teams, the Thunder still manage to shoot at a higher clip—even against the Grizzlies. Through four regular-season contests, the Thunder shot 47.5 percent from the field against Memphis, which was actually higher than their average (47.1).
Good luck holding the Thunder's offense to sub-40 percent shooting in Game 3 and beyond.
Good luck ensuring that Durant drills only 12 of his 28 shot attempts. He shot 52 percent in Game 1 and 50.3 percent through the regular season. Of the 83 total games he's played this year—playoffs included—Durant has failed to surpass 43 percent shooting just 23 times.
Good luck trying to keep Russell Westbrook from one of his trademark so-this-is-why-the-Thunder-keep-me-around games, when he buries at least half his shots. The Thunder are nigh unbeatable in those instances. In the 17 regular-season games Westbrook nailed 50 percent or more of his field-goal attempts, they were 15-2.
Good luck to the Grizzlies, a lockdown defensive team that won't be able to oppress a tried-and-true Thunder offense forever.
Going With What We Know
This was always going to be a competitive series.
Defense meets offense. Grit meets explosion.
Contender meets contender.
Ever stop to think why the Grizzlies fought so hard for the right to face the Thunder during their final regular-contest against the Dallas Mavericks? They could have easily folded.
Screw overtime. Let's rest. Let's face the San Antonio Spurs.
But that's not what happened. The Grizzlies believe they can beat the Thunder; they know they can beat them.
For all its firepower, the Oklahoma City offense is still regrettably simplistic. Durant and Westbrook are going to get the ball. Then they're going to attack. Then they're going to shoot. It's not rocket science.
Both Durant and Westbrook will make plays for their teammates, but most of the Thunder's offense is predicated on setting screens to free up one of the aforementioned two and watching them go to work.
Simple-minded thinking of that kind won't always be successful against the Grizzlies. They can and have cracked Oklahoma City's offensive code, as we saw in Game 2, and as CBS Sports' Eye on Basketball staff explains in detail:
We learned OKC still hasn't figured out how to beat the Memphis defense to get KD looks consistently. Going into the series, one of the assumptions was that Durant had evolved past the point of being bothered by good defenders (Tony Allen) going over the screen had (Tony Allen) and getting on Durant's hip (Tony Allen) to bother his shot without fouling (Tony Allen). He has not, at least not against Tony Allen. Part of that is the Thunder's scheme. They try and get Durant the ball at the top of the key or on the perimeter off relatively simple actions. Memphis countered by basically blitzing the catch, either preventing it or forcing an immediate kickout.
When the Grizzlies swarm Durant, when they fight over screens, they put themselves in a position to win. The Thunder have yet to adjust to their physical, at times ball-crowding defense, and it shows.
"I thought in the second half, our defense and offense gave us a chance," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said afterward, per The Associated Press (via USA Today). "Unfortunately, we didn't make a couple of key plays down the stretch."
And yet the Thunder almost won Game 2. We must always circle back to here. They almost won. Their imperfect brand of basketball rivaled the best kind of game the Grizzlies can play. That counts for something.
Even when the Grizzlies fought back in Game 1, whittling a 25-point deficit down to two, Durant and the Thunder showed what they can do when they're on: run away.
One ugly almost-win doesn't change that. The Thunder are still the favorites to win this series, and they are still the favorites to win Game 3.
Not even the Grizzlies can ground them for long.