PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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SEASON RECORDS

Memphis: 56-26, fifth seed in the West

OKC: 60-22, one seed in the West

PLAYOFF RECORDS

Memphis: Beat the Los Angeles Clippers 4-2

OKC: Beat the Houston Rockets 4-2

SEASON SERIES

Grizzlies took two of the three meetings.

KEY INJURIES

Russell Westbrook is out for the playoffs after undergoing surgery for a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession) – PLAYOFFS ONLY

Memphis: Offense 109.7 (2nd in the postseason), Defense 104.9 (11th in the postseason)

OKC: Offense 109.2 (3rd in the postseason), Defense 101.9 (8th in the postseason)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

The Thunder’s ability to get consistent scoring from players not named Kevin Durant: With the loss of Russell Westbrook at this late stage of the season, OKC is forced to adjust on the fly without their most explosive player, and the one who led the team in field goal attempts over the course of the season. Replacing what Westbrook gave the Thunder will be a tall task against a solid Grizzlies team that’s more than capable of locking down defensively at times, so the likes of Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson will need to provide reliable production from the guard spots for the Thunder to advance.

The continued brilliance of Mike Conley: The Grizzlies’ point guard has played as well as anyone in this postseason, and carved up the Clippers with averages of 17.3 points, 8.3 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game that were all better than his regular season averages. Conley was especially great in the closeout Game 6, finishing with 23 points on seven shots, after getting to the free throw line for a whopping 17 attempts.

There’s a reason that the Grizzlies offense, which was below average during the regular season, came to life against the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. Conley’s ability to have high assist, low turnover games has been key in his team’s surge on that end of the floor, and his ability to feed Zach Randolph in the post with perfectly-placed passes has helped his big man dominate for stretches inside.

Memphis is built on defense, certainly. But Conley is the key to bringing their offense to a respectable level that can actually make the Grizzlies a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.

Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins: These two didn’t have a great first round series against the Rockets, but the matchups are much more favorable in the second round against a Grizzlies team that relies heavily on its two bigs inside. Oklahoma City may be uniquely qualified to slow the Memphis frontcourt attack with both Ibaka and Perkins, as well as with Nick Collison off the bench.

OUTLOOK

The burden will be on Durant to carry the Thunder offensively in this series, and he’s more than capable of doing so. The problem is that Memphis has a strong wing defender in Tony Allen who can at least make Durant work for his points, and if the Grizzlies can force Durant into low shooting percentage games, while containing the rest of of the Thunder’s role players, it could be trouble for Oklahoma City.

The Grizzlies’ ability to play good team defense, along with their improved offense we’ve witnessed so far this postseason, should be enough to get them into the Conference finals.

PREDICTION

Grizzlies in six.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: ‘I don’t crave to be in a big market’

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De'Aaron Fox was the breakout star of the Kings’ breakthrough season. The future looks bright in Sacramento.

But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.

Will Fox be different?

Fox, via Corban Goble of ONE37pm:

“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”

I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.

Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.

They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.

But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.

Damian Lillard on leaving Trail Blazers for super team: ‘We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?’

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Kevin Durant left for the Warriors for many reasons. LeBron James left for the Heat for many reasons. Anthony Davis and Paul George forced their way to Los Angeles for many reasons.

Those are life-altering moves. Nobody does something so consequential for a single purpose.

But whether or not it intended, each of those stars took an easier route to a championship. That’s just the reality.

Damian Lillard, on the other hand, has done so much to elevate himself then pull up the Trail Blazers with him. Lillard has often touted his loyalty to Portland. He showed it by signing a super-max extension that locks him in through 2025.

Lillard, via Adam Caparell of Complex:

“To leave, what did I invest all this time for just to leave, you know?” he says. “If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?”

I disagree with Lillard’s certainty about winning a title if he teamed with other stars. Not every perceived super team has won. A championship still must be earned. It’s not easy.

But it would be easier.

It also probably wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Durant has admitted winning a championship with Golden State didn’t fill the void he thought it would. Maybe for other reasons, but it’s easy to see the Warriors’ talent advantage as a reason. He joined a title contender and made it even better. He didn’t build that team. Perhaps, a championship with the Nets would mean more to him.

Lillard is less likely to win a title by staying Portland. I think he knows that. He enjoys the city, and the $196 million he projects to earn on his four-year extension doesn’t hurt, either.

But if Lillard ever wins a championship with the Trail Blazers, it would be so gratifying. That’s what he’s chasing.

Lillard made clear he’s not criticizing stars who chose an alternate path. He’s doing what’s right for him, just as they did what was right for them.

His quest should earn him plenty of fans. For everyone who disliked Durant joining Golden State because it offended their sensibilities of how a title pursuit should work, Lillard is a great foil.

Andre Iguodala recalls Draymond Green doubling Kevin Durant in practice: ‘he was mad … We was tryna win’

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Devin Booker complained to his opponents for double-teaming him during a pick-up game.

That has sparked a Great National Debate: Is it right or wrong to double-team during pick-up games?

Kevin Durant:

That’s a reasonable conclusion. The primary defender is missing an opportunity to work on his defense by getting help. But I also think it fails to address the main point. Booker wasn’t complaining to help the defender. Booker wanted the ideal training environment for himself, the offensive player.

How should the offensive player feel about it?

It’s a reasonably interesting question that’s getting taken far too seriously because the NBA is in a dead period. But to give it more juice, let’s add the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green relationship to the equation.

Andre Iguodala:

Durant:

It seems Durant can laugh it off now, but this story feeds into what so many people think they know about these players – that Green is a relentless competitor (accurate) and that Durant is soft (inaccurate).

NBA players spend so much time playing basketball. Sometimes, it’s helpful to face game-like conditions, where double-teams can happen at any point. Other times, it’s helpful to have more-relaxed conditions.

I don’t know enough about Booker’s pick-up game or the Warriors’ practice to say what was appropriate in each.

Report: Executives expect Thunder to say they are not trading Chris Paul (but they are)

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It’s all about leverage.

Right now the vultures are circling the Oklahoma City Thunder, hoping to get a free meal. Everyone knows the Thunder are moving into a rebuilding mode and want to trade Chris Paul for picks/young players, so other general managers — the vultures — are throwing out lowball offers hoping to get a steal of a trade. And by steal we mean making the Thunder throw in a first-round pick as a sweetener to get CP3 and the three-years, $124 million left on his contract off their books.

Oklahoma City’s response? Say “we’re not trying to trade him” and be patient. Here is how Brian Windhorst phrased it on ESPN’s The Jump (hat tip Real GM):

“Here’s what executives expect to happen: they expect the Thunder to put out a message that we’re not looking to trade Chris Paul…We want him to work with our young guys. Because they don’t want anybody to think they’re panic-trying to trade him, and they want to hope that somebody has something happen where they need Chris Paul,” said Windhorst.

Royce Young, who covers the Thunder for ESPN, added that he believed the Thunder would hold on to Chris Paul rather than surrender a draft pick.

This is the smart play. CP3 is still a top-flight point guard in the NBA, even if he has taken half a step back, and there are at least eight NBA teams going into this season thinking they have a shot at a title, and a few more looking at deep playoff runs. Some team is either going to realize they are not as good as they thought they were, or are going to suffer an injury, and be looking for an All-Star level player and replacement. Enter the Thunder and Chris Paul.

What this ultimately means is expect this to drag out. Not just through the summer and through training camp, but maybe all the way to the trade deadline.