NBA Playoff Preview: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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REGULAR SEASON RECORDS

Memphis Grizzlies: 50-32 (7 seed)
Oklahoma City Thunder: 59-23 (2 seed)

KEY INJURIES

None to speak of. Both teams have all the guys in their regular rotations. While Oklahoma City had kept Russell Westbrook out of back-to-backs as a precaution down the stretch, but that’s not an issue come the postseason.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Memphis Grizzlies: Offense 103.3 (16th in NBA), Defense 102.1 (T-7th in NBA)

Oklahoma City Thunder: 108.1 (7th in NBA), Defense 101 (5th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Can Memphis slow Kevin Durant? Durant will be the NBA’s MVP — 32 points a game on 50.3 percent shooting, hitting 39.1 percent from three. He is going to get his in this series, but during the season the Grizzlies have had some success keeping Durant in check when Tayshaun Prince was guarding him. In the more than 30 minutes Prince was on Durant this season Durant was 19-of-47 overall (40 percent) and 4-of-12 from three (33 percent), according to the NBA’s SportsVU camera data. The questions here for Memphis are: 1) Can Prince sustain that? Durant has torched Tony Allen and the other Grizzlies’ wings, so there aren’t a lot of good options; 2) If Prince can somehow sustain it he is an offensive black hole (true shooting percentage of 43.8, PER of 8.2) and they need scoring. Durant is an incredibly efficient scorer and will probably average 30 points a game in this series, but can the Grizzlies grind him and just make him less efficient? It’s key for them.

2) Can Oklahoma City slow Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol? Last year when these teams met in the playoffs Scott Brooks played Kendrick Perkins better than 20 minutes a game and that was an issue because they needed offense with Westbrook out. This year Westbrook is back and this may be the one series where leaning on Perkins is not a bad thing — when matched up on Gasol or Randolph, Perkins allowed fewer shots than any other Thunder big and held them to 40 percent shooting, according to the NBA’s SportsVU data. Gasol-Randolph shot 42 percent against Steven Adams and 48 percent against Serge Ibaka (but he had four blocks). Memphis is going to grind and get most of their points from this tandem, if OKC’s bigs can keep them from being efficient it will be a tough go for Memphis.

3) Russell Westbrook vs. Mike Conley. Mike Conley has become the best point guard in the NBA nobody is talking about. He is a traditional floor general, although the Grizzlies will needs one points out of him this series. More importantly, he’s one of the better defensive point guards in the league and he’ll be tasked with keeping Russell Westbrook in front of him and out of the paint — penetration breaks down any defense, the physical Grizzlies included. Westbrook cannot have an open runway to the rim and that falls on Conley — a task he is up to. The other key that ties into this (and falls on all the Grizzlies and not just Conley) is keeping Westbrook and the Thunder out of transition. If the game is fast paced — even for just a stretch — and the Thunder are getting easy buckets in transition, the Grizzlies will not be able to match that scoring. This needs to be grit and grind at its best for the Grizzlies. The Thunder need Westbrook to put up points, especially if the Grizzlies focus on Durant, but to do it efficiently.

PREDICTION

Thunder in seven. Memphis is not your standard seven seed — this is a 50-win team that was 33-13 after Marc Gasol returned from his knee injury and is hitting its stride at the right time. For Memphis to pull the upset (and it’s possible) they will need a monster series from Mike Miller — spacing the floor has been the Grizzlies’ issue the past few seasons (only 17.1 percent of their shot attempts this season were threes, lowest in the league) yet Oklahoma City can take mental defensive vacations where they give up good look threes. If Miller (45 percent from three this season) and the Grizzlies (Courtney Lee matters here too) can hit enough threes they have a chance. But Oklahoma City’s perimeter defense when focused is too much… plus they have that Kevin Durant guy. He’ll get them a win or two this series alone.

Tyronn Lue says he has secret plan to fix Cavaliers’ defense for playoffs

AP Photo/Phil Long
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Only one team that ranked outside the top 12 in points allowed per possession during the regular season won an NBA title. The 2000-01 Lakers, who were 21st in defensive rating, are the lone outlier.

The Cavaliers rank 22nd in defensive rating this season and have been even worse lately.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue says he has a plan. He just won’t reveal it yet.

Lue, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We’ve got to hold back. We can’t show our hand early because … these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”

Also:

“I think the rebounding hurt us. Rebounding. But it will be different once some other things happen. … Their two-guards, their threes, they still crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”

What precisely those plans are, Lue wouldn’t tell us. And here’s the other part — he’s not exactly sure they’ll work.

“I’m not confident, but we’ve got to” get the defense fixed, Lue said. “We have to.”

The Cavs ranked just 10th in defensive rating last season, among the worst marks for an eventual champion. But they cranked up their defense in the playoffs, especially late. Cleveland held the Raptors 4.8 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season scoring rate and the Warriors 7.8 below theirs.

Lue also unleashed a 3-point-heavy attack in the playoffs last year after sitting on the strategy through the regular season.

So, I have some faith Lue will implement a better defensive gameplan when it counts. It also helps to have LeBron James, who can still play elite defense when not in the slog of a long regular season.

But the Cavaliers’ defensive deficiencies right now are glaring. This roster appears to lack defensive potential, and their many miscues keep them well below whatever that potential is.

The challenge in elevating this defense to championship-caliber will be immense, maybe even unprecedented.

Mavericks’ Salah Mejri dunks while getting shoved in the gut (video)

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The Mavericks built a 13-point lead over the Thunder with 3:30left thanks to plays like this Salah Mejri dunk on Nick Collison.

Unfortunately for Dallas, Russell Westbrook happened.

Willy Hernangomez dunks on Andre Drummond, Pistons’ playoff chances (video)

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Andre Drummond and the Pistons couldn’t slow down anything.

Not Willy Hernangomez. Not the Knicks. Not Detroit’s plummeting playoff hopes.

After a 109-95 loss to the Knicks last night, the Pistons — who’ve lost four straight and seven of eight — are 1.5 games and two teams out of playoff position.

Terrence Ross 360 dunks his way back into Raptors fans’ hearts (video)

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In his first appearance in Toronto since the Raptors traded him to the Magic, Terrence Ross did what he has done best throughout his career: Delight Toronto fans with a dunk.

And of course the fans appreciated it, because their Raptors cruised to a 131-112 win.