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.

Jordan Clarkson urges NBA to allow players to compete in more global events

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The NBA is trying to walk a fine line. On the one hand, the league and its owners want to globalize the NBA — it is the best, most watched basketball league on the globe and they want people in Europe and Asia to follow the NBA the way American soccer fans follow the Barclays’ Premiere League. That will make the owners more money, and never forget this is a business first, second, and third. With that, the owners allow players to compete for their native countries in major events, such as the FIBA World Cup or Olympics.

However, there is a “club vs. country” tug of war in the NBA. Players want to represent their countries — and sometimes are pressured to do so — while NBA teams see injury risk. They look at the story of Dante Exum blowing out his ACL playing for Australia as a cautionary tale.

So when the Cavaliers’ Jordan Clarkson wanted to play for the Philippines in the Asian Games (his mother is a native of that country, so he is allowed), the NBA shot it down at first saying this tournament was not part of the agreement between FIBA and the NBA that allows the league’s players to take part in major international events (the Olympics, the basketball World Cup, etc.). However, the league eventually flipped and allowed a “one-time exception” for Clarkson (plus Houston’s Zhou Qi and Dallas’ Ding Yanhuyang).

Now Clarkson says he wants the NBA to allow players to compete in more global events, he told Agence France-Presse at the Asian Games.

“After being told no so many times, I refused to give up. I kept fighting,” he said. “I’m here now, ready to compete.”

“I think they get the point — in Asia kids are picking up a basketball. I feel like the NBA is allowing us to do our thing.”

Basketball is a growing sport in Asia — it’s huge in the Philippines already, and it’s growing fast there and in countries such as China. The NBA wants its foot in the door there. It wants to be part of that market — the NBA plays exhibition games in China every year for a reason.

The Asian Games — the second largest multi-national sporting event in the world behind the Olympics — is a good exception to make. Clarkson and other NBA stars playing there — including in the future — is good for the NBA.

However, the league is going to face a challenge trying to find that line in future years between promoting the game and the NBA internationally and protecting its investments in its players.

Watch the top 60 blocked shots of last NBA season

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We love blocked shots. One player is attacking the rim, another gets in his way and rejects that shot. Frankly, we overestimate their importance on defense at points (because it’s a quantifiable stat in a world where defense is hard to quantify), but they matter.

And they are fun.

Check out the top 60 blocks from last season, as put together by NBA.com. It all starts with a chase down block by Kevin Durant (who has improved his rim protection in recent years) and ends with Anthony Davis showing why he is a beast.

It’s Sunday, and what else are you going to do? Watch preseason football?

Grizzlies expected to bring rookie Jaren Jackson along slowly

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Jaren Jackson was one of the standout rookies of Summer League. It started in Salt Lake City at the Jazz Summer League, where he looked like the future of the NBA five — knocking down threes, being athletic enough to run the court on the break, blocking shots, and being physical inside. In Utah, he averaged 15.7 points per game and five boards a night.

Expect the Grizzlies to bring Jackson along slowly, however, once the regular season starts. Jackson likely will come off the bench behind the starting frontline of Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green. That will not be popular with the fan base, but the Grizzlies want to trust their veterans and make a playoff push.

Look at what Grizzlies executive John Hollinger told the Peter Edmiston of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

I think whatever happens, we want it to happen organically, and not get ahead of ourselves, and make sure we’re taking all the right steps on him, and not getting too excited and skipping ahead….

“We don’t want to put him into overtly physical matchups yet because he’s 18 and his body is still filling out,” he said.

Strength is almost always the biggest challenge facing young big men in the NBA (and Jackson is still 18, he will turn 19 during training camp). These are grown men they are going against nightly, and while Jackson had plenty of strength to hang with the Summer League crowd, things are very different when the big boys come to play. Even in an NBA moving away from old-school power ball, it still matters.

While the Grizzlies will work to not rush Jackson, that plan is somewhat dependent on players with a history of injury issues staying healthy. Jackson is not going to get 30 minutes a night, he’s not going to get the touches that fellow rookies such as Trae Young and Luka Doncic will receive, and he may not be in the mix for Rookie of the Year. We’ll see how things shake out, but on a Grizzlies team looking to put itself in the playoff conversation, the coach likely will lean on veterans he trusts.

Where Jackson will rank in this draft class three years from now could be very different. He has the potential to be the star of this class (or at least one of a few breakouts, this is an interesting group).

Victor Oladipo: ‘I play nothing safe now’ because ‘that really didn’t get me anywhere’

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Victor Oladipo transformed last season.

Traded to the Pacers, he showed up to camp in better shape than he had ever been before, and with a new confidence in his handles and shot making. Coach Nate McMillan realized what he had, put the ball in Oladipo’s hands, and got out of the way. The result was a 48-win Pacers team where Oladipo was the league’s most improved player, made an All-NBA Team, the All-Defensive Team, and was an All-Star for the first time.

Oladipo, after going to the USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas, is back in a Miami gym with the same team of trainers and staff who transformed his body and game a year ago. In a fantastic profile by J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star, Oladipo talks about the mental transformation he has undergone as well.

“I push the envelope. I play nothing safe now,” Oladipo says. “I’m the guy if we’re down two, I’m pulling up for three. I work too hard to not push the envelope. I used to be conservative but that really didn’t get me anywhere.”

His trainer, Al Watson, talked about getting Oladipo better prepared for defenses that focus on him and late-game situations.

“Last year we started doing a lot of tightening up his ball-handling skills. This year we took it to another level because I watch a lot of film on him,” Watson says. “In the fourth quarter, he’s like the point guard. Wanted to focus on a lot of combination moves, working on traps. It’s no secret now. They’re going to be double-teaming him.

“You look at the great players, Kobe, they had to do a little bit of everything. His shot from the perimeter may be off so he’s got to learn, ‘Let me get myself going, get to the mid-post, get some fouls.’ He’s got to be able to attack with all different facets of the game. We do a lot of sprinting, getting to your spots. Got to get open. I touch everything with in-game situation stuff.”

Oladipo’s team includes an off-the-court group trying to better position himself to make money off his stardom. He doesn’t want to play it safe off-the-court, either.

Indiana is going to lean heavily on Oladipo again. They added some depth — Doug McDermott, drafting Aaron Holiday — and are counting on more from players such as Myles Turner. However, by and large, the Pacers are running it back, and they are sneaking up on nobody this season. Internal improvement will be their key.

Oladipo is ready. He’s not playing it safe anymore.