Western Conference Round 2 Playoff Preview: Thunder vs. Grizzlies

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SEASON RECORDS

Thunder: 55-27 (No. 4 seed)

Grizzlies: 46-36 (No. 8 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Memphis 3-1, however none of those games took place after Kendrick Perkins was part of the Thunder lineup.

PLAYOFF SERIES:
Oklahoma City defeated Denver 4-1
Memphis defeated San Antonio 4-2

SERIES SCHEDULE (times Eastern)
Game 1 – Sun May 1 at Oklahoma City1:00PM (ABC)
Game 2 – Tue May 3 at Oklahoma City 9:30PM (TNT)
Game 3 – Sat May 7 at Memphis 5:00PM (ESPN)
Game 4 – Mon May 9 at Memphis 9:30PM (TNT)
Game 5 * Wed May 11 at Oklahoma City TBD (TNT)
Game 6 * Fri May 13 at Memphis TBD (ESPN)
Game 7 * Sun May 15 at Oklahoma City TBD

KEY INJURIES
Thunder: none
Grizzlies: Rudy Gay, who has been out of the lineup for the second half of this season… but can you imagine how much more dangerous they would be with him?

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Thunder: Offense 108.6 (4th in NBA); Defense 104 (13th in NBA)
Grizzlies: Offense 104.4 (16th in NBA); Defense 102.5 (8th in NBA)

THREE KEY THUNDER

Kevin Durant. Expect him to have a big series, which should be obvious as he is one of the best scorers in the NBA right now. But Shane Battier does a solid job on him, making him less efficient. He can’t get sucked into that, he can’t settle for contested long two pointers. He was a -5.3 per 48 minutes against the Grizzlies this season because they forced him into shooting those twos — he didn’t just get to the rim and shoot open threes. He needs to do those two things this series.

Russell Westbrook. Against the Grizzlies this past season he not only got to the rim a lot against Memphis but he shot 71.4 percent when he did — which seems inconsistent with what you expect against a long front line, but those are the facts. If he can get inside and break down the Grizzlies, the Thunder will have a huge advantage.

Kendrick Perkins. This is why the Thunder made the trade for him — in the regular season Zach Randolph destroyed the Thunder and Marc Gasol was a problem. Perkins will be expected to change that, to make like difficult for Randolph (or free up Serge Ibaka to do that) and clean up the glass. Time for him to earn that extension.

THREE KEY GRIZZLIES

Zach Randolph: He was the key against the Spurs and he is the key against the Thunder — this season he averaged 26.5 points and 13 rebounds per game. He was +7.3 per 48 minutes. Like the Spurs, the Thunder had no answer. Now they have Kendrick Perkins, but Randolph still has to dominate for the Grizzlies to have any chance.

Shane Battier: He will draw the Kevin Durant duty and, while nobody stops the two-time defending scoring champion somebody needs to slow him. If Durant gets loose and does his thing, Memphis will not be able to keep up. They need to slow it down and ugly the game up, and Battier is at the heart of it.

Tony Allen: It’s all about defense, and he will get time on both Durant and Westbrook. Those are two athletes, to scorers Memphis just cannot match. They must be slowed, and Allen will be a big part of that. If he can knock down some threes, that would help, too.

OUTLOOK

Look for these games to be close — over the course of four games this season the two matched up very, very well,

The thing is, this is a different Thunder team than the one that Memphis beat three out of four this season. Kendrick Perkins changes the equation. Or could — one key is for the Thunder not to foul. In their four meetings this season the Grizzlies averaged 30.5 free-throws pergame against the Thunder. Oklahoma City has to stop fouling.

The battle of the bigs will be key — can Serge Ibaka and Perkins slow down Randolhp and Marc Gasol? They have to if the Thunder want to avoid the fate of the Spurs. The winner of the battle of the bigs will be crucial

The Thunder have the better athletes — Durant posted 40 in OKC’s one win in the series this season — but Memphis has been able to contain them. For now. Nobody has been able to keep them bottled up for long. But that will be key to this series.

PREDICTION

In the end this is sort of like the Denver series — Memphis has the talent to push Oklahoma City but at the end of the day Durant and Westbrook will prove to be too much to handle. After what the Grizzlies did to the Spurs you cannot doubt them, completely, but in the end the better athletes of the Thunder will win out.

Thunder in 7.

Tempers flare in chippy Game 4 between Heat, Sixers

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Miami is a physical defensive team, and in Game 4 at home Saturday they cranked that up. The Heat also are a handsy team they clutch, grab, hold, and get away with what they can (that isn’t new to this playoff series).

The Sixers are getting weary of it, and in a game with plenty of double technicals thanks to the referees trying to keep control. The game bubbled over a little midway through the second quarter when Robert Covington made sure Goran Dragic didn’t get off a shot after a foul.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Ben Simmons also leaned into Wade on a screen and pancaked him. But drew a foul.

😅

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Miami had the lead after three, but the Sixers have owned the games late this series. It’s going to go down to the wire.

Advantage Utah? Jazz’s Derrick Favors “100 percent” back

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When Derrick Favors can find ways to impose his will, good things happen for the Utah Jazz.

Favors has been quietly, albeit effectively, getting it done against the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing in the shadows of Utah rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell and Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

But a healthy Favors is making an impact.

The Jazz have returned to Utah with the series tied 1-1, thanks in no small part to Favors. He tallied career playoff highs of 20 points and 16 rebounds in Utah’s 102-95 road win on Wednesday.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder will start Favors at power forward alongside Gobert beginning with Game 3 on Saturday. But he will also utilize him as a backup center to spell Gobert. Favors has done his part to make playing alongside Gobert work by extending his shooting range to improve offensive spacing. He has also made himself an effective roller.

“He’s always been a good pick-and-roll player, regardless of `position,”‘ Snyder said. “We’ve never really thought of him as one position or the other. We’ve thought of him as a basketball player and tried to have him understand his strengths and then play to his strengths.”

Indeed. In the first two playoff games against the Thunder, Favors is averaging 13.5 points on 52 percent shooting and 10.5 rebounds.

It is exactly the type of impact Favors envisioned making when fighting to reclaim his body from knee and back injuries that afflicted him for the better part of two seasons.

“I’m back to being 100 percent,” Favors said. “Back healthy. Back moving the way I know I can move and playing the way I know I can play. It’s a big advantage for us.”

There’s no question having Favors at full strength has improved Utah’s ability to counter a Thunder team featuring the potent trio of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. The veteran forward/center offers versatility on both ends of the court honed through playing multiple positions as circumstances dictate.

Crashing the boards definitely tops the list when checking off Favors’ strengths. He ranks second on the Jazz roster in rebounding behind Gobert with 7.2 rebounds per game.

When Favors is active on the glass, it can change the direction of a game for Utah. In Game 2 against Oklahoma City, he grabbed eight offensive rebounds through the first 2 1/2 quarters. By contrast, the Thunder totaled six offensive boards as a team in the same stretch.

“His length and his strength allow him to get his hands on balls,” Snyder said. “He’s got such good hands that even when he keeps the ball alive, usually something good happens.”

Favors’ willingness to go full throttle around the basket has turned him into a reliable complimentary player on offense. He rolls to the basket with consistency and, more often than not, it pays off for him.

It has turned Favors into a legitimate offensive presence again. He averaged 9.5 points on 48.7 percent shooting while limited to 50 games a year ago. This season, Favors is scoring 12.3 points per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the floor.

“Other teams and other opponents, they look and see I’m 6-foot-10 and think I’m a 5 man or whatever, so they try to take advantage of it,” Favors said. “It just feels good to be able to go out there and move the way that I know that I can move and be able to play the way I know that I can play and teams can’t take advantage of it.”

Favors is focused on staying aggressive as the series with the Thunder shifts to Utah. He is having fun playing basketball again and wants to make sure Oklahoma City continues to feel his presence on both ends of the court.

His teammates certainly do and they understand what a difference it can potentially make as the Jazz battle to keep going in the postseason.

“He’s been like that all year,” Mitchell said, “but he’s definitely turned it up with what he can do.”

 

Heat have work cut out vs. surging Sixers

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MIAMI (AP) — Philadelphia 76ers reserve guard Justin Anderson scored six points on Thursday, but he played a major role nonetheless in a 128-108 playoff win over the Miami Heat.

It was Anderson who worked on the psyche of teammate Joel Embiid, the 76ers’ All-Star center who returned after missing 10 straight games because of a concussion and left-eye injury.

“Justin was hyping me up on the bench, telling me I’m one of the best players in the league and that I have to take over,” said Embiid, who wore a mask during the game. “I liked that.”

Embiid, with that added boost of confidence, produced 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 30 minutes. He missed his first five shots from the floor and then made five of his next six, including three 3-pointers.

In addition, Embiid made 10 of 15 free throws, wrapping up his highly successful NBA playoff debut.

On Saturday afternoon, the teams will meet again at AmericanAirlines Arena in a first-round series the Heat trails 2-1.

Certainly, the Heat will try to corral Embiid, but Miami gave its own star center, Hassan Whiteside, just 13 minutes on Thursday, in part because of foul trouble.

Whiteside produced just five points, two rebounds and one block. He made his only shots from the field, but his four fouls helped to keep him off the court.

“I want to get more minutes,” said Whiteside, who led the NBA with 3.7 blocks in 2015-2016 and with 14.1 rebounds last season. “Even with the fouls, I could’ve been out there. I would not have fouled out.”

This season, Whiteside is averaging 14.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. But, on average, his minutes per game are down seven minutes from last season and even more in the playoffs.

Whiteside said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra “wants me to just be in a corner and set picks.”

Spoelstra, meanwhile, said “it’s part of my job to figure out how he can get to his strengths and make an impact on defense and rebounding.”

Aside from the two centers, the other big story line in this series revolves around the 76ers, a young team that won 18 of its past 19 games. After years of horrendous records amid a major teardown and rebuild effort, the 76ers have looked like the best team in the league during the past month.

They didn’t just beat the Heat on Thursday — they ran them over, making 18 of 34 3-pointers (52.9 percent). They also shot 50.6 percent overall and were plus-eight on rebounds and plus-14 on paint points.

Ben Simmons, the 76ers’ star point guard, nearly had a triple-double with 19 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and seven assists.

JJ Redick, one of the top shooters in the league, scored just 10 points, but 76ers teammates Dario Saric and Marco Belinelli each scored 21 points and each hit four 3-pointers to help the offense flow.

Miami was led by 23 points and eight assists from point guard Goran Dragic. Heat reserve forward Justise Winslow scored a season-high 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. But Miami’s top three shooting guards — Tyler Johnson, Dwyane Wade and Wayne Ellington — combined for just 21 points.

The game’s biggest factor was Embiid, who had been listed as unlikely to play until Thursday afternoon, when he was cleared by doctors.

Embiid had a 7-0 run in the fourth quarter, which continued a trend. In Philadelphia’s two wins in this series, they have outscored the Heat by 31 and 21 points, respectively.

Anderson said Embiid has been a team player throughout.

“One of the things (Embiid) told me during (Thursday’s) game was to tell Coach that he didn’t want any plays run for him,” Anderson said. “He just wanted to play within the scheme.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo laid waste to Aron Baynes with this dunk

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For the first time this series Friday night, the Bucks looked like the more talented team.

That got them a comfortable win at home against the Celtics and set up a huge Game 4 on Sunday, with the Celtics still up 2-1 in the series. This looked more like the Bucks team that some of us picked to win the series, the team with the long and superior athletes unleashed on defense to challenge everything Boston tried. Milwaukee also got a big game out of Thon Maker at the five, which helped spread the floor because he’s a threat from three (as a team, the Bucks were 16-of-33 from deep) that the Celtics had to cover. That opens up driving lanes.

Giannis Antetokounmpo took advantage of those lanes laid waste to Aron Baynes with this dunk.

🛫 THE GREEK FREAK TAKES FLIGHT! 🛬

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Damn. That’s not fair.

🇬🇷💥

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Game 4 is Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee… and let’s just say I’m not betting Baynes will be able to turn the tables and put the Greek Freak in a poster.