The Oklahoma City Thunder had to drop Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals in order to learn it. But, in what amounted to a class in NBA Street Brawl 101, learning is exactly what they did.
The Nuggets were soft, undersized and uninspired. These Memphis Grizzlies are not the Nuggets. Playing a smash-mouth brand of basketball that would make Woody Hayes proud, Memphis pounded the Thunder into submission on Sunday.
But in Tuesday's Game 2, Oklahoma City was ready. They were more physical and more aggressive, while displaying the perfect combination of poise and desperation. The result was a dominant 111-102 victory that wasn't even as close as the final score would indicate.
Here are five keys to ensuring a similar result in Game 3, on Saturday.
Zach Randolph torched the Thunder for 34 points in Game 1, but managed only two field goals on 13 attempts in Game 2. The difference was Nick Collison. The seventh-year veteran took over for an ailing Serge Ibaka in the second half and held Randolph without a made basket the rest of the way.
Adequately defending Z-Bo is crucial to eliminating the Grizzlies. Randolph took over the San Antonio series and looked like he was headed for a repeat performance after the first game of this series. Shutting him down, as the Thunder did in Game 2, cripples Memphis offensively.
With Ibaka hobbled by ankle and knee injuries, the onus likely falls on Collison once again.
According to Merriam-Webster:
enigma— 2.) something hard to understand or explain (See also: Harden, James)
From 2007-2009, Oklahoma City drafted four players in the first round. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden. Three of the four have developed into elite level talents. The latter has yet to crack the starting lineup. But that's not the issue with Harden. He is the leader of the second unit, an excellent source of scoring off of the bench and an adequate complementary fit.
The problem with James Harden is, and always has been, a lack of consistency. When he reaches the point that the Thunder can count on him for 14-16 PPG, they will become a legitimate championship contender for the foreseeable future. Thunder fans can only hope that Tuesday's James Harden plans on sticking around. If that's the case, the future could very well be now.
Ibaka practiced for the first time on Friday and appears to be good to go for Game 3. But how effective will he be?
Serge I-Blocka's nickname is indicative of his value to the Thunder. The acquisition of Kendrick Perkins has allowed him to switch to the weakside, where he has emerged as one of the most ferocious shot blockers in the Association. But lingering knee and ankle injuries have a tendency to make a high riser apprehensive—as we've seen with Derrick Rose.
Nick Collison was outstanding in Game 2, but that doesn't lessen Ibaka's importance to the Thunder on Saturday. Not only are his defensive contributions pivotal, but he has shown the ability to carry considerable weight on the offensive end if need be. The same cannot be said for Collison, Kendrick Perkins or any other front court option. For Oklahoma City to perform at the peak of their powers, they need Serge healthy and active.
This is the part where I deal Kevin Durant his portion of the blame for the Alpha Dog misunderstanding that seems to have been taking place throughout these playoffs. It will be brief. Feel free to interpret that as you wish.
Durant is one of the most prolific scorers in the world. Not on his team. Not in the Western Conference or even in the NBA, but on the third planet from the sun. Every shot inside of half court is within his wheel house. In spite of redundancy, I'll rephrase and reiterate the previous statement for effect. Kevin Durant is one of the most efficient and potentially dominant shot-makers on planet earth.
There is not another player on the Thunder roster who warrants the same annotation. (This means you, Russell Westbrook.) Coincidentally, there is not another player on the Thunder roster that should be consistently out-shooting him.
Within the pace of the game, KD must be as assertive as possible.
I made the comment, after Game 2 of the Thunder's first-round series with Denver, that Westbrook needed to slow down. His speed and quickness is much of what sets him apart from his peers. But he was playing too fast, and he hasn't decelerated. He's been out of control and outside the flow of the offense for much of these playoffs.
Worse, he has been dominating the "FGA" portion of the box score. The Thunder point guard has out-shot Kevin Durant in five of the Thunder's seven playoff games—and, not coincidentally, in both of Oklahoma City's playoff losses (by a margin of 53 to 39).
In commanding a double team for large stretches at a time, Durant dictates Westbrook's offensive output in accordance with his own. There are times when it is necessary for Russell Westbrook to take over the game for a period of time. But since the playoffs began, Westbrook has been forcing the issue, over-asserting himself and hurting his team in the process.
In Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder have a Jordan and Pippenesque one-two punch that could go on to win multiple championships. But, only if Westbrook accepts his role as the "Pippen" in that equation. Make no mistake, I am an enormous Russell Westbrook fan. But the strength of his game lies in his ability to facilitate a high-octane offense and make you pay for over-playing Durant.
He needs to channel his inner-Steve Nash, and understand that his value does not directly correlate with his individual scoring output. Just because he can put up 30-plus points a night, doesn't mean he should.
The good news for the Thunder is that the type of player that I just described is the same one that has been playing point guard in Oklahoma City all season. Westbrook doesn't need to change the way that he plays—he needs to quit changing the way that he plays.