Thunder-Grizzlies NBA Conference Semi Preview: The Young Guns vs. WHO?!
I'm pretty sure that I read this matchup correctly, but could someone PLEASE make sure for me? That's the Memphis Grizzlies that are actually in the second round of the playoffs, right?
All kidding aside, the Grizzlies absolutely manhandled the No. 1 seed Spurs. I'm happy to see the city of Memphis have something to cheer about other than their world-class rib and music scene, as the team has been the joke of the league for some time.
Memphis took care of business by providing stout perimeter defense and letting big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol wear down an overmatched Spurs front line. The Spurs looked old and tired, the Grizzlies brought the thunder (no pun intended), and impressively held off the four-time champions without blinking an eye.
Meanwhile, the OKC Thunder took the Denver Nuggets to school in the first round with a very balanced attack. With many scoring options and a defensive presence on the block and perimeter, the Thunder shut down an overmatched Denver team playing with heart for coach George Karl.
With both teams boasting some bangers down low, this series is going to be physical. The key will come down to perimeter play. We all know who wins that battle.
SERIES STUD: Russell Westbrook. For those who aren't familiar with my analysis on TwoGuysTalkingSports, I pick a Series Stud for this particular series, not who's the best player overall.
And for this series, I think Russell Westbrook gets the job done. He averaged 23.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG, and 6.2 APG being guarded primarily by the Ty Lawson/Ray Felton combo in the first round. I look for him to expose Mike Conley's defensive weaknesses by penetrating hard to the basket. From there, he'll either score or dish to his big men down low.
Kevin Durant will get his points, but I think that guard Tony Allen and forward Shane Battier will neutralize him as much as humanly possible. When Durant is somewhat contained, it's Westbrook's time to shine.
THE THUNDER: With the way OKC electrified throughout their dominant five-game performance over the inspired Denver Nuggets, this team could be called the Lightning. In my first round preview (check it out on my blog), I picked the Thunder to be my Western Conference Finals representative. I'm feeling even better about that pick now.
Why, you ask? Because since the addition of Kendrick Perkins the Thunder has been one of the best defensive teams in the game.
Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins destroyed Denver's big men (or lack thereof), and the Thunder was the best rebounding team in the first round. That's pretty good considering Denver was one of the league's top offensive teams in the regular season.
Ibaka averaged a RIDICULOUS 4.8 BPG in the series. What's going to be interesting is watching how he and Perkins handle an inside tandem in Gasol and Randolph that is about 10 steps up from what the Spurs had to offer.
I just don't see anyone stopping on the Grizz stopping a team that can hit you from a thousand different angles on offense. Westbook and backup Eric Maynor drive and create. Durant and James Harden shoot lights out. Ibaka and Perkins take you on the low blocks. This team scores at will, and I don't think that's going to change in this series.
THE GRIZZ: Memphis is into the second round for the first time in team history. The question for me is whether they can keep up the intensity after the biggest milestone in franchise history.
It's improbable me that the team takes another series, but it's not impossible. Memphis' strength comes on the inside, which is a problem as OKC has the ability to neutralize it.
Zach Randolph has taken the next step, becoming a player that can carry this team on his back. After the way he acted in his early career, particularly in Portland, I can't believe I just wrote that. Marc Gasol - not Pau - averaged a double-double against the Spurs.
Ibaka and Perkins will be all over Randolph and Gasol, and Rudy Gay is out for the post-season. But who is going to step up and score for Memphis here? Is it going to be Conley? Battier? O.J. Mayo off the bench?
Mike Conley is playing like he should have before his contract extension, and Tony Allen and Shane Battier bring a defensive intensity to this team that it never had before. But I don't think it's going to be enough.
It's not like OKC doesn't have perimeter defenders either. Durant, James Harden, and Thabo Sefolosha all can swipe the ball away from Memphis' guards and start the transition offense. Someone needs to step up the perimeter scoring for Memphis or this series is already over.
PREDICTION: This is going to be a great series. Ibaka/Perkins will be throwing 'bows with Gasol/Randolph for the length of the ride, and I think that's an even matchup. Ultimately though, Memphis doesn't have an offensive answer to the Westbrook/Durant one-two punch. It's been real Memphis, but better luck next year. The young guns roll on. Thunder in 6.
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