There has been much to love about the Western Conference Second Round series between the Thunder and the Grizzles.
And now we get a Game Seven.
Heading into the playoffs, the Thunder was known as the young, fierce team that could catch fire and shock their opponents into a deep playoff run.
Then the Grizzles caught fire. Zach Randolph started playing the best basketball of his life, the ‘other Gasol’ (who I currently refer to as ‘the Gasol still playing’) stepped up on defense and Mike Conley got hot. The Grizzles caught the Spurs off guard in Game 1 and dispatched them five games later.
It was an impressive run, but questions remained as this series begun. How long could they stay hot? How could they deal with Westbrook and Durant? What will they do to counter the Thunder’s bench, the Thunder’s shooters, the Thunder’s interior defense (newly fortified by chiseled defensive vet Kendrick Perkins).
Through the first round, the Grizzles had been playing like a team who had already exceeded expectations, but surely they wouldn’t be able to take out the Thunder, right?
In the past week, we’ve seen the Lakers and the Celtics fall, potentially signally the end of their respective eras of dominance in the NBA. The Bulls and Heat have secured their spots to battle out ownership of the Eastern conference, and everyone is expecting the Thunder to win today’s game and set the stage for an equally exciting Western Finals.
But something tells me the Grizzles aren’t done just yet. Even though the game will be played in Oklahoma City – and home teams are 21-7 in Game Sevens over the past decade – the Grizzles have attacked the Thunder in some very interesting ways:
Memphis has spread the floor well
Coach Lionel Hollins took a gamble in Game 6 and started O.J. Mayo to start over Sam Young. The strategy appeared to be that Mayo is the stronger perimeter shooter, and it would force the Thunder to respect the Memphis shooters, as opposed to overloading the interior to stop Zach Randolph. The gamble worked. Mayo shot well for the night (6 – 12 from the field and 2 – 4 from the three point line), and the Thunder had no choice but to abandon their plans to double up Randolph every time he touches the ball.
Memphis is winning the steals/turnovers battle
Maybe the most impressive indication of Memphis’ aggressive approach to this series can be found when you look at steals and turnovers for the series:
During the regular season, the Thunder was 6th in the league in steals, and had the 15th fewest turnovers, but Memphis has found a way to rattle the Thunder when it comes to protecting the ball, something they’ll need to do very well in Game Seven.
Memphis has managed to keep Durant in check
Look at Durant’s point production in each game of the series: 33, 26, 22, 35 (3OT), 19, 11.
It’s easy to dismiss Durant’s Game 6 performance to an off-night, but it’s probably important to note that Memphis has been attacking him with switches and double teams. At times, they’ll just straight up ignore Perkins in favor of pouring pressure onto KD (and why not? Who would you prefer giving up easy baskets to?).
This from ESPN:
“It’s Kevin Durant, now,” Gasol said. “We know what they’re trying to do. They got a couple of slips on Kendrick, but if Kendrick gets a little hot, we can live with that. But if KD does, it’s not good.”
Sunday is a big day for Kevin Durant. Not only is it his first Game Seven, but he’s going to need to brush off two Memphis defenders all day, attack the basket and score a lot of points. He’s going to need to inspire his team to protect the ball and look for the smart pass. He’s going to need to keep the Memphis shooters out of rhythm, and he’s going to need to put the crowd on his back and keep them hollering for the win.
In other words, Kevin Durant is going to have to be the player we all hope he can be.
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