The Oklahoma City Thunder can't afford another playoff failure.
After losing to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, then failing to advance past the second round once Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus one postseason later, the Thunder have to be a bit desperate for postseason success. The clock is ticking, and if the hands move too far around their rotations without a Larry O'Brien Trophy on the mantle, this roster might eventually be broken up.
But that's a worry for another day.
It's still possible for OKC to right the ship and advance deep into the playoffs. Game 7 against the Memphis Grizzlies is looming, then the Los Angeles Clippers or Golden State Warriors wait in the second round, should the Thunder advance past the first.
With Kevin Durant and Westbrook struggling, the Thunder have looked extremely vulnerable for the first time in a while. But it doesn't have to be that way.
All it takes is a few adjustments, and this Western Conference squad will be rolling once more.
Do the Expected in Game 7
Everything is breaking right for the Thunder as they head into the Game 7 clash with Memphis.
Not only is the contest being played within the friendly confines of an always-loud Chesapeake Energy Arena, but it's coming just two days after a momentum-changing win in Game 6, one in which Durant exploded for 36 points and started to shake that "Mr. Unreliable" nickname bestowed upon him just prior.
That alone should be enough to make OKC the favorite in the do-or-die outing, as should the simple fact that the Thunder are well ahead of the Grizzlies in terms of talent.
But that's not "everything."
THIS JUST IN: Grizzlies F Zach Randolph suspended for Game 7 vs Thunder for punching Steven Adams in Game 6.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 2, 2014
Z-Bo is out with 100 percent certainty, as he was suspended one game for punching Steven Adams during Game 6.
The timing makes the punishment seem harsh, but it's the right decision by the Association, as circumstance shouldn't affect the determination of any violence-related suspensions. It's Randolph's fault that he lost his cool at a time when the repercussions could make him miss the biggest game of the season, not the NBA's.
As for Conley, the news isn't quite as dire. He'll attempt to play with a strained hamstring, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, but it's hard to imagine he won't be affected by the malady.
"You're not supposed to play through it, they say," Conley told Windhorst. "I've got deaf ears right now. I'm going to get treatment on it and be as good as I can be."
NBA announces Zach Randolph has been suspended for Game 7 vs. Thunder. With Conley hurt, well, this series is about over.— Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) May 2, 2014
Well, not problematic for the Thunder.
Even though the two teams split the first six games of the first-round series, it's easy to come to the conclusion that OKC is the vastly superior squad. The Thunder have outscored their opposition by nearly five points per 100 possessions, and the Memphis offense has already struggled immensely while at full strength.
For the Thunder, saving their season involves winning Game 7, but that just shouldn't be all that difficult. All OKC has to do is take care of business as expected.
Get the Stars Rolling
Even if the Thunder do complete the comeback against Memphis and advance to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, they'll be in trouble if they can't get the stars back on track. The Warriors or Clippers won't make for an easy matchup, after all.
Fortunately for OKC, both Westbrook and Durant started to play much more effectively during Game 6, which resulted in a 20-point blowout of the opposition.
The dynamic point guard did shoot 9-of-21 from the field, but he recorded 25 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals in the victory. Meanwhile, KD exploded for 36 points and 10 rebounds, though his perimeter jumper still wasn't connecting as frequently as we've come to expect from the league's leading scorer.
Hounded by a brutal Memphis defense, neither superstar has been able to thrive on the offensive end, especially when you compare their numbers to those produced in the regular season:
|Westbrook (Regular season)||21.8||5.7||6.9||43.7||31.8||82.6||24.7|
|Durant (Regular season)||32.0||7.4||5.5||50.3||39.1||87.3||29.8|
The inefficiency has been particularly problematic for the Thunder offense, as neither scorer can connect on his outside looks with any sort of frequency. Westbrook hasn't let that dissuade him from lofting up one attempt after another, though he's certainly helping his overall value by contributing in plenty of other areas.
Has either player been bad?
No, not really. But neither of them have lived up to the lofty expectations they set for themselves throughout the rest of the year, and continued struggles will doom them against a team with a better offense than the one Memphis has been throwing out onto the court.
To fix this, everyone involved must be patient.
OKC must remain convinced that Durant and Westbrook will get it going, because they will. As soon as they start seeing the ball go through the net, they'll begin to heat up, and it'll also help when they aren't playing a unit as suffocating as this Grit-n-Grind one.
But the two All-Stars must be patient as well. They can't settle for this inefficient jumpers, but should instead attack the basket aggressively and be willing to facilitate if their shots continue to find more rim than net.
Continue Playing Intelligent Defense
It's easy to make Memphis' offense look like an unimpressive unit, but the Thunder have done far more than that.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Grizzlies are going into Game 7 averaging only 100.6 points per 100 possessions. As of May 2, that was easily the worst mark among any of the 16 playoff teams:
- Atlanta Hawks, 104.0
- Indiana Pacers, 103.0
- Chicago Bulls, 103.0
- Charlotte Bobcats, 101.5
- Memphis Grizzlies, 100.6
But let's put things in even more perspective. Here's how the bottom of the offensive rating leaderboard from the regular season would've looked if you could mix this Grizz performance in:
- Boston Celtics, 102.9
- Chicago Bulls, 102.5
- Orlando Magic, 101.7
- Memphis Grizzlies, 100.6
- Philadelphia 76ers, 99.4
It's time to give the Thunder some credit for forcing Memphis' offensive rating to drop 5.7 points per 100 possessions below what it was in the regular season. And remember, they were even better than that during the second half of the campaign when Marc Gasol returned to the lineup after recovering from his meniscus injury.
Even though Westbrook and Durant are incredible offensive talents, this must remain the identity of the Thunder. Defense is said to win championships, after all.
OKC has excelled on the less glamorous end of the court by remaining disciplined at all times. The Thunder aren't fouling often, despite the physicality of the series, and they're eschewing gambles in favor of stellar positions that allow them to contest almost every shot that Memphis attempts.
Things will get harder next round, as both the Clippers and Warriors boast offenses that are significantly more potent. But sticking with what's worked thus far will give the Thunder a sizable advantage.
Make Necessary Adjustments
The downfall of the Thunder's previous playoff runs always seem to fall into the same category—lineup adjustments.
Scott Brooks has been notoriously hesitant to tinker with his rotations, even when it's abundantly clear that the current ones just aren't working. Kendrick Perkins remains in the starting lineup despite small-ball proclivities from the opposition, and cold players don't typically cede minutes to hotter ones.
It's stubbornness, and it's problematic.
Even if Durant and Westbrook heat up, even if the Thunder keep playing elite defense when the opponent boasts a better offense, it won't matter if they run into the wrong matchup. Brooks will have to change things up...as he did heading into Game 6 of the first-round series.
Yes, I'm as surprised as you are by the portion of the previous sentence that comes after the ellipsis. I can't believe I had to write it.
Anthony Slater put the move in context for The Oklahoman:
Without even hinting at it the past 48 hours, Brooks surprised the basketball world right before tip-off, benching lineup mainstay Thabo Sefolosha and replacing him with Caron Butler. It was his first strategic starting lineup change – due to neither injury nor trade – since his first year, when he replaced Earl Watson with Russell Westbrook .
Brooks' first year was 2008-09.
Westbrook started that referenced game on Nov. 29, 2008, which coincidentally came against Memphis. The contest also featured another lineup change, as Nick Collison moved to the bench to make room for Chris Wilcox. Jeff Green, Durant and Damien Wilkins were the other starters.
It's been a while.
Fortunately for the head coach who suddenly finds his seat warming up a bit, this latest move worked. By inserting Butler into the starting lineup, Brooks was able to promote a hot start for his team, which stormed out to a 19-8 lead over the Grizzlies with just over four minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Will Brooks be able to keep making changes? He should, especially as his confidence swells from the success of his first foray into uncharted waters.
Will the Thunder win the title?
Eventually, he's going to run into a team that makes Perkins into even more of a liability than he already is. And at that point, OKC's ceiling will hinge on the decisions of a coach who can sometimes be accused of hubristic stubbornness.
Normally, I'd replace "sometimes" with "always," but Brooks is showing that even an old dog—which he qualifies as after six seasons of service as a head coach—can learn new tricks.
That might be the best news of all for the Thunder.