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.

Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan staying in 2017 NBA draft

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Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan declared for the 2016 NBA draft, struggled at the combine, withdrew, got into great shape, had an All-American sophomore season, declared for the 2017 draft.

This time, he’s not turning back.

Swanigan:

Swanigan is a borderline first-round pick. He has a couple NBA-ready skills the good teams that typically pick late in the first round might covet, but thanks to trades, teams that didn’t win a playoff game this year hold most late first-round picks. They might pick someone with more upside than Swanigan.

Swanigan is a tenacious rebounder, particularly defensively. He has excellent fundamentals, size (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan) and ability to read the ball, and he crashes through contact to hunt boards.

He’s also a quality post-up player who can finish with either hand and has the passing ability to make that play work.

But Swanigan is slow. NBA teams have become increasingly adept at running plodders like him off the court by dragging them into pick-and-rolls. Even when on the court, he hasn’t protected the rim at satisfactory levels.

Swanigan has overcome his athletic limitations as a rebounder. He hasn’t done so in other facets of defense.

He’s hardly a dinosaur offensively. He made 45% of his 3-pointers last season, and though I’m not confident that will translate to NBA 3-point range (give the small sample and his form), he should be at least a midrange threat.

Swanigan is also just 20, young for a sophomore. He can improve.

But it’s just hard to look past his defensive limitations.

Hawks hire Travis Schlenk as general manager

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The Hawks picked Warriors assistant general manager Travis Schlenk as their next general manager. All that was left was negotiating terms.

That’s done.

Hawks:

The Atlanta Hawks today announced the hiring of Travis Schlenk as General Manager and Head of Basketball Operations. He will start leading Hawks basketball operations on June 1.

Schlenk worked his way up the latter and helped the Warriors become the envy of every other NBA team. He deserves this opportunity.

But the job won’t be easy.

The Hawks are stuck between two directions. On one side, they have veterans Paul Millsap (a 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent whom the owner has basically promised a huge contract) and Dwight Howard (who sounds unhappy). On the other side, they have a youth movement featuring Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince. Tim Hardaway Jr., who bridges the age groups, is about to enter a potentially tricky restricted free agency.

Keeping the core together offers the upside of a playoff-series victory or two annually, modest outcomes for the cost. But a fragile Atlanta fan base might not tolerate a rebuild.

Schlenk works for owner Tony Ressler, and Ressler sounds committed to maintaining the status quo by keeping Millsap. It’s now Schlenk’s job to execute that vision or convince his boss to approve a different direction.

Potential none-and-done first-rounder Hamidou Diallo returning to Kentucky

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The more I’ve looked into the 2017 NBA draft, the less impressed I’ve become. There are a few bright spots in the first round relative to an average draft – No. 2, 5ish-10ish, 17ish-22ish – but I’m not convinced this is the generationally strong draft it has been touted as.

In the absence of prospects who offer secure promise, why not turn to upside? Hamidou Diallo offered plenty and was increasingly viewed as a first-rounder.

Yet, he’ll return to Kentucky for his freshman season.

Diallo:

A highly ranked recruit, Diallo began last school year at a prep school then enrolled at Kentucky for the spring semester. He practiced with the Wildcats, but never played.

Then, he went to the combine and posted excellent measurables: 6-foot-5, 6-foot-11 wingspan, 44.5-inch vertical and strong agility and sprint scores. Just 18, Diallo might have been the second-youngest player drafted this year (behind only Ike Anigbogu).

It wouldn’t have taken long – likely somewhere in the middle of the first round – for a team to bite on all that potential.

Instead, Diallo returns to Kentucky and must now show his ability to actually produce in basketball games. If he does, there’s no limit on how high he goes in the 2018 NBA draft. If he doesn’t, he’ll regret missing the opportunity to get drafted before his game got picked apart.

Report: Bulls expect Dwyane Wade to opt in

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Dwyane Wade said he wants to see the Bulls’ plan for Jimmy Butler and the rest of the roster before deciding on a $23.8 million player option for next season.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

I can tell you is most everyone associated with the Bulls believes Wade will pick up the option and remain in Chicago for a second season. More surprising things have happened in league history, though. So stay tuned.

This could be a tell that Wade will opt in. The Bulls could obviously be positioned to base their prediction on inside information into Wade’s thinking.

This could a tell the Bulls won’t trade Butler. If they know they’ll keep Butler, they can extrapolate what that’d mean for Wade.

Or the Bulls, like so many of us, just assume a 35-year-old Wade won’t turn down so much guaranteed money at this stage of his career.