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NBA Playoffs 2011: OKC Thunder Bench & Defense Key to Winning Series vs. Memphis

PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 30:  Kevin Durant #35 and James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder talk during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on March 30, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Thunder defeated the Suns 116-98.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Nicholas GossCorrespondent IMay 6, 2011

Good defense and solid bench play are two key ingredients needed to make a deep postseason run in the NBA

In Game 2 of their second-round series versus the Memphis Grizzlies, the Oklahoma City Thunder played great team defense and received very good bench scoring to tie the series at 1-1 heading to Memphis for Games 3 and 4. 

After scoring just 16 total bench points in the series opener, the Thunder responded with 48 bench points in the Game 2 victory on Tuesday night. 

When OKC’s bench plays well, the Thunder are very difficult to beat. They are one of the deepest teams in the league, and have many players who can contribute at both ends of the floor for head coach Scott Brooks. 

Like he has been all season long, reserve guard James Harden is the X-factor of the bench. His inconsistency frustrates Thunder fans greatly, but when he’s shooting well he can be very dangerous to opposing defenses. 

Harden scored only five points in Game 1 during 24 minutes of playing time, but in Game 2 he scored 21 points in 30 minutes of playing time. 

The biggest improvement from his terrible Game 1 performance was his 11 free-throw attempts in Game 2. This shows he was aggressive in trying to find his scoring touch, and was not settling for outside jump shots the whole game. 

Harden shot 5-of-9 from the field in Game 2 and made all 11 of his free-throw attempts. His offense is huge for the Thunder; it allows them to stretch the floor with his good outside shooting to allow Durant and Westbrook the floor space they need to be able to drive to the basket. 

In addition to his scoring, Harden has also become a good one-on-one defender. He is able to guard the other team’s best perimeter player well enough when starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha is on the bench or in foul trouble. 

When Harden is having a bad night, the Thunder must have another bench player step up. That player has to be backup point guard Eric Maynor. 

Maynor scored 15 points in Game 2, five times the amount he scored in Game 1. Maynor is a good passer but he can also find his own offense when starting point guard Russell Westbrook needs a break.

Maynor and Harden give the Thunder one of the best bench backcourts in the playoffs, and if they can become more consistent, OKC will not fear going to its bench when the starters are having an off night or get tired. 

OKC’s defense could take a hit Saturday if starting power forward Serge Ibaka is unable to play on Saturday afternoon. According to NewsOK.com, the Thunder forward missed practice on Thursday because of an ankle injury suffered in Game 2. Ibaka is listed as day-to-day and is likely to play in Game 3. 

If Ibaka is not able to play his normal minutes in Game 3 due to his injury concerns, backup forward Nick Collison will have to play an increased role. Collison is one of the few veterans on the team, and his 62.5 field-goal percentage makes him the only Thunder player shooting above 50 percent in the playoffs. 

Collison’s defensive smarts and hustle make him a key contributor to the Thunder, and with Ibaka not feeling 100 percent, Collison is sure to see more minutes in Game 3. 

The formula for success is easy for the Thunder to figure out. If they get key contributions from the bench and play solid defense, OKC will easily take care of the Grizzlies

The Thunder did not play with enough passion and aggression in Game 1, and it cost them the home-court advantage. But they corrected their mistakes in Game 2, and even with their youth and inexperience, they found a way to battle through adversity in the postseason. 

After a shaky start to the series, the Thunder are poised to end this series with Memphis a lot sooner than most people think.

Nicholas Goss is an NBA, and Oklahoma City Thunder Featured Columnist from Boston, MA. Follow him on Twitter.

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