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.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.