Tag Archives: Mike Conley

Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 53 of 82)

durant westbrook adams thunder randolph conley grizzlies

  • When: Wednesday, 11 February 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

The Oklahoma City Thunder head into the All-Star break having achieved what likely has been their first, and most significant, goal in this turbulent season. Build some momentum and some chemistry and stay within striking distance of the 8th seed. In their last 5 games, the Thunder are an Anthony Davis 30-feet heave away from likely being 5-0. Phoenix has sputtered a bit in the past month, and the Thunder find themselves only 1 game back of the Suns. All three teams battling for the 8th spot (Phoenix, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City) come into Wednesday’s action with 25 losses each. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are doing what they have done for the past 6 seasons, which is carry the brunt of the Thunder’s offensive load. Reggie Jackson seems to have remembered how to play basketball in the past week and a half.  And the Thunder rookie Mitch McGary, having finally gotten over the myriad of injuries that have plagued his inaugural season, has been a breath of fresh air in the past two games, getting a double-double in both games.

This is the third of four meetings between these two bitter rivals. The Grizzlies have won the first two games of the season series. In the first game, the Thunder, who were without Westbrook and Durant, battled valiantly against the Grizzlies, but came up short as Serge’s Ibaka’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer just missed. In the second meeting of the season, Durant attempted to come back from a toe injury, but looked out of sorts the entire game. The Thunder were likely pressing, having just lost to the New York Knicks in their previous game, and came out tight. They eventually lost the game 85-74. These two teams have previously met in the playoffs in 3 of the last 5 seasons, with two of those series going to a decisive 7th game.

The Opponent

Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley

The Grizzlies come into the game with a 39-13 record, good for 2nd in the Western Conference. They’ve won 14 of their last 16 games and seem to be over some of the early season injuries that have plagued them (Mike Conley’s ankles and Zach Randolph’s knee). During this stretch, they’ve also had to assimilate a new rotation player in Jeff Green. The Grizzlies sport one of the best defenses in the league, as they allow only 95.6 points per game (No. 1 in that category) and are the 5th best in terms of defensive rating. They do a good job of defending, without fouling, allowing only 20.5 free throw attempts per game, good for 3rd in the league. The Grizzlies are led by Conley, one of the most underrated floor generals in the league, who is averaging 17 points and 5.4 assists per game. On the wings, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green provide a good contrast in style, with Lee being the perimeter threat (45.8% from 3-point territory) and Green being the jack-of-all-trades. Up front, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are arguably the best big man duo in the league. Between them, they average 35.3 points and 20.1 rebounds per game. The Grizzlies feature a veteran bench that won’t lose them any games. Their top reserves are Tony Allen, Kosta Koufos, and Beno Udrih.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Memphis Grizzlies

  • PG – Mike Conley
  • SG – Courtney Lee
  • SF – Jeff Green
  • PF – Zach Randolph
  • C – Marc Gasol

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Pace – The Grizzlies love to slow it down and play half court offense. They do a great job of playing inside/out with the two big men and with Conley’s ability to get into the lane. If the game is in the high 80’s to low 90’s, that pace favors the Grizzlies. But if the Thunder can get out in transition and push the pace efficiently on their end, then a higher scoring game will definitely be in the Thunder’s favor. Plus, the Grizzlies are on the second game of a back to back.

mcgary

2. McGary – This is the first game where McGary’s name will likely appear on someone’s scouting report. He’s the great unknown in regards to playing against the Thunder. If he’s on the floor with Durant and Westbrook, it opens up another fold to the Thunder’s offensive scheme that opponent’s have rarely seen: a big man that can finish off the roll in the pick-n-roll.

3. Playoffs – The 8th seed is in play. The Thunder, Suns, and Pelicans all have 25 losses as of Wednesday, with the Suns having played one more game than the other two teams after tonight. It will be a fight to the end of the season. The Thunder have battled all this way. Let’s head into the All-Star break with some momentum, down only 1/2 game from the 8th spot.

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Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 6 of 82)

reggie jackson tony allen thunder grizzlies

  • When: Friday, 07 November 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

The Oklahoma City Thunder come into Friday night’s match-up against the Memphis Grizzlies at 1-4. A far cry from the number 2 seeded team they were in the playoffs last season. Don’t let the record fool you, though. Yes, injuries have bitten the team hard, but in that stead, a champion’s heart has started to emerge. Even though the team has fluctuated between 7-8 healthy players, the Thunder have been in every game heading into the 4th quarter except one. That is a testament to the players’ wills and to the coaching staff for having the team prepared. With that said, the season stops for no team and continues on.

The Thunder vs. Grizzlies match-up is a rivalry that has been building for the past few seasons. Both teams started their ascension to the top of the Western Conference around the same team, with the Thunder having gone a little bit further in that time span. Last season, the Thunder won the season series 3-1, but nearly got ousted by the Grizzlies in the first round. That playoff match-up was one for the ages with Games 2-5 being decided in overtime. The series featured game-saving 4-point plays, epic 4th quarter comebacks, super-nova’ed bench players, and Perkins hitting a game-tying put back to send one of the games to overtime.

The Opponent

allen randolph gasol conley grizzlies

The Grizzlies come into the game with a 5-0 record, boasting the best defense in the league. They allow a league low 86.2 points per game and are 2nd in Defensive Rating. The offense, while not high scoring, is one of the better half-court offenses in the league. Mike Conley continues to play his part as “most underrated point guard in the league.” With per game averages of 15.4 points, 6.6 assists, and 1.4 steals, Conley continues to be one of the most consistent point guards in the league. Up front, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol make up one of the most formidable front court duos in the league. Their size and skill in the post creates problems for most teams. On the wing, Courtney Lee is currently shooting an unsustainable 70% from 3-point territory and Tony Allen is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league (just ask Kevin Durant). The Grizzlies’ bench is veteran-laden, featuring Vince Carter, Quincy Pondexter, Kosta Koufos, and Beno Udrih.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Memphis Grizzlies

  • PG – Mike Conley
  • SG – Courtney Lee
  • SF – Tony Allen
  • PF – Zach Randolph
  • C – Marc Gasol

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Jeremy Lamb
  • SF – Lance Thomas
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Pace – The Grizzlies play at one of the slower paces in the league. They take their time, look for efficient shots, and keep turnovers to a minimum. Although the Thunder don’t have the horses to run like they normally would, a quicker pace may be advantageous to them in this game. If the Thunder play at the Grizzlies’ pace, they may play into the opponent’s hands (paws?).

2. Perimeter shooting big men – The Grizzlies love to pack the paint and dare you to shoot jumpers. Their anchor on the interior is Gasol, the 2012-13 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. But a line-up with any two of Serge Ibaka, Lance Thomas, or Nick Collison, who can do damage from the perimeter, could take Gasol and Randolph out of the comfort zone of the interior and open up driving lanes for Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Sebastian Telfair.

Jeremy Lamb

3. Jeremy Lamb – This will likely be Lamb’s first game of the season. It will be interesting to see how Lamb reacts, not only to being one of the primary offensive options on the team, but also to having no restrictions or pressure on him. Even if he shoots awful, there is no one behind him in the depth chart to take his place.

Early Training Camp Stories

durant media day thunder

With Monday’s media day out of the way, the Oklahoma City Thunder started their journey into the 2014-15 NBA season. Like every other training camp before this one, there are questions and issues that need to be settled before the season begins. Luckily, the Thunder don’t have to contend with any roster-shattering trades or major injury issues like they have in the last two training camps. The Thunder come into camp basically intact and healthy. Here are some of the issues the Thunder are hoping to settle before October 29th.

1. Reggie Jackson

Probably the biggest question mark heading into the season is the contract situation of Reggie Jackson. The Thunder have until October 31st to work out an extension with Jackson. If no deal is done by then, Jackson will enter restricted free agency next offseason. Thunder GM Sam Presti, in his address to the media, said Jackson was a “core member” of the team and that the team was working hard in trying to secure an extension.

Many people will hark back to how the Thunder handled (or didn’t handle) the James Harden extension. As has been rehashed many times over, Harden and the Thunder couldn’t get an extension worked out and Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets four days before the beginning of the season. But there are two major differences between the two situations. The first difference is that Jackson is not a max player. While NBA teams have been giving out very generous contracts to “upper middle class” type players in the past few offseasons, Jackson unfortunately plays a position of excess in the NBA. Many teams already either have their point guard or aren’t necessarily in the market to pay max money for a “middle class” player. The second major difference is the Thunder’s financial situation. Due to the Harden trade, the Thunder were able to maintain their salary cap flexibility and, even with 3 max or near max deals, are in great financial shape. With the salary cap set to greatly increase in the next 2-3 seasons, the Thunder can offer Jackson a reasonable contract without endangering their ability to extend Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka.

The Thunder have everything in their favor to re-sign Jackson. But like many other situations in life, the events we think will be solved in a straight line, usually become roller coasters before we reach the finish line. The monkey wrench in this situation is Jackson’s adamant desire to be a starter. He planted the seed during exit interviews at the end of last season. And his tone didn’t change throughout the offseason. As Jackson stated during media day, “I can’t remember any great that wasn’t a starter. All the greats have started. I just want to be great. I want a chance to be great. I can’t recall a superstar Sixth Man.” The problem is that Jackson is point guard sized, and the Thunder have an opening at shooting guard, a position usually reserved on the Thunder for a long-winged defender that can (hopefully) make spot-up 3-pointers.

The Thunder got a sneak peak at what a Westbrook/Jackson back court would look like in the last four games of the Western Conference Finals. While the results were positive, the Thunder will probably choose to go the traditional route for the regular season. Whether its a ploy by Jackson to leverage the Thunder into more money or whether Jackson truly wants to be a starter in the league, this monkey wrench is probably a long ways away from getting resolved. Look for Jackson to head into the season without an extension.

2. Starting Shooting Guard

For the first time in five seasons, someone other than Thabo Sefolosha will start at SG for the Thunder on opening night. Sefolosha signed with the Atlanta Hawks in the offseason, thus opening the 2-guard spot. Sefolosha struggled in his final season with the Thunder and was relegated to bench duty at times in two of the Thunder’s three playoff series. The Thunder have a bevy of candidates that could possibly start at shooting guard.

Andre Roberson started 16 games for the Thunder as a rookie when Sefolosha was out with a calf strain in the 2nd half of the season. He has shown flashes of being the prototypical wing defender that the Thunder love to use at the 2-guard position, but is a developing work in progress on the offensive end. In 40 games total last season, Roberson only attempted 13 3-pointers, making only 2 in the process. He knows his limitations offensively and usually defers to his more offensively minded teammates.

Jeremy Lamb was viewed as being the heir-apparent to James Harden after the trade two seasons ago. He could shoot like Harden and was long and rangy enough to be made into an adequate defender. He showed flashes last season, averaging nearly 10 points per game until he hit the “rookie” wall in the second half of the season. Last season was Lamb’s second, but it was his first playing significant minutes. By the end of the season, Lamb’s minutes were going to veterans Caron Butler and Derek Fisher. The Thunder seem to really like what Lamb brings to the team and may look to him to be their version of Danny Green of the San Antonio Spurs.

lamb jones thunder

Reggie Jackson is another option. He started the final four games of the Western Conference Finals with Westbrook to positive results. But the Thunder probably view Jackson as their firepower off the bench and one of their closers. While Jackson has been adamant that he would like to start, his best role on this team may be that of his current role as a sixth man.

The dark horse in this competition is Perry Jones. He started six games for the Thunder at SG and did a memorable job defensively on LeBron James in the Thunder’s victory in Miami against the Heat last season. He’s the median between Roberson and Lamb. He can hit the corner 3 pretty consistently and has the tools and ability to be a good defender. The question is whether he has the motor and “want to” to beat out the other candidates?

In the end, I think Lamb comes out of the fray with the starting position. His ability to space the floor will give the Thunder a dimension in their starting line-up they have been severely lacking. The onus will be on Lamb to improve defensively. The Thunder preach defense, and if Lamb is not up to task, there are at least 3 guys in the wings that can replace him.

3. Starting Center

With Kendrick Perkins nursing a quad strain, Steven Adams has an opportunity to supplant the veteran as the team’s starting center. The signs have been pointing towards Adams being the center of the future for this team. But Adams’ play last season may have fast-forwarded that development to this season. Adams started 20 games last season when Perkins was out and developed consistently as the season progressed. In the playoffs, Adams averaged nearly 4 more minutes per game than Perkins after Game 5 of the first round.

Perkins’ contract is up after this season and the team is probably ready to move on from it. While Perkins has been a great locker room presence, his play on the court has not merited his hefty salary. But if the Thunder start Adams, they run into a bit of a conundrum. Perkins’ value is as a starter. He is great defensively against traditional post players, most of whom start. As a bench player though, the little value Perkins does have gets muted. The team could always trade Perkins, as a $9 million dollar expiring contract is a commodity during the trade deadline, but the depth at center suffered a bit when the team traded Hasheem Thabeet. Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, and Mitch McGary can all play center, but are better suited for power forward.

What I see happening is a repeat of last season’s playoffs. Perkins will get the starts, but Adams will get the lion’s share of minutes.

4. 15th Spot

The Thunder do have a roster spot open, but have always preferred to keep that spot open until the trade deadline in February. An open roster spots becomes more attractive to a team looking to trade more players than they are receiving. Also, after the deadline, expiring veterans on lottery bound teams are usually bought out so they have the ability to latch onto a playoff-bound team for the stretch run. The Thunder have used this roster spot in recent years to sign Derek Fisher and Caron Butler for late season playoff pushes. In conclusion, I see the Thunder going into the season with an open roster spot.

5. The Semaj Christon Situation

Christon, the Thunder’s 2nd round pick from the 2014 NBA Draft, will apparently be getting the Grant Jerrett treatment. Jerrett was the Thunder’s 2nd round pick from last season’s draft. Instead of inviting him to training camp and being forced to offer him a training camp contract, the Thunder, instead, renounced their rights to him and made him the first pick in that year’s D-League draft. He played the entire season with the Tulsa 66ers, and then signed with the Thunder in the final week of the NBA season. The Thunder then included him on their playoff roster. That inclusion allowed Jerrett to get paid the playoff bonus that all the other players received. The Thunder rewarded Jerrett’s loyalty by offering him a multiyear contract this offseason.

semaj christon thunder blue

According to Christon’s agent Doug Neustadt, he will begin his career with the Thunder’s renamed D-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. Christon has the physical attributes to be a Thunder-type point guard (long, athletic, able to drive and finish). On the Blue, he’ll probably be tasked with running the team and becoming a better shooter. If the Thunder have an open roster spot near the end of the season, look for them to reward Christon for his loyalty and patience.

6. Hot seat for Scott Brooks?

Is this the season that the coaching seat starts to warm up for Brooks. He has probably his most talented roster yet, and will be measured by whether he wins a championship or not. Injuries have had a big hand in deciding the Thunder’s fate the last two postseasons, but Brooks has also been to blame due to his lack of an offensive system and his stubbornness to make rotational changes whenever necessary. Brooks is a great ego-managing coach. He’s nursed the Thunder’s core players from “all-potential” to “all-production”. That is not an easy thing to do in the NBA. But now, its “put up or shut up” time. The team is primed for a championship run and their core players are just now entering their prime. Will Brooks rise above the fray, or will he, once again, be a game too late in making the right adjustments?

7. Is Russell Westbrook the best point guard in the league?

Yes! He outplayed Mike Conley, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker on head to head match-ups in last year’s playoffs. He was probably the 2nd or 3rd best player in the playoffs. And for a 10 game stretch before he necessitated another surgery on his knee in December, he averaged 21.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 9.2 assists per game on 46.5% shooting. Is he the best pure point guard in the league? Probably not. That title still belongs to Chris Paul. But pound for pound, bringing everything to the table, I’m taking Westbrook every time.

8. Steven Adams’ mustache

The Lord giveth…..

adams thunder 2

…And the Lord taketh away (just a day later – no ‘stache)

 adams practice

#SadFace

9. Will Serge Ibaka ever learn who Mitch McGary is?

OH, the outrage when it was discovered that Serge Ibaka didn’t know who Mitch McGary. How dare Ibaka not know who one of his teammates are? Until you consider that Ibaka was probably just enjoying his time in Spain representing the host country in the FIBA World Cup. Fans tend to think the players are as passionate about the roster makeup of their team as they are. American-born players are used to waking up watching SportsCenter and knowing the ins and outs of the league. Foreign-born players don’t have the same routines as American-born players, so they probably don’t necessarily keep track with all the happenings around the league. Plus, Serge was extremely busy this summer, so its understandable. And besides, he’ll have plenty of time to get to know McGary this season.

In the end, Ibaka could have just been trolling everyone, though.

10. Was this the longest offseason in Thunder history?

Yes!

2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division

Southwest Divison

1. San Antonio Spurs

spurs championship 2014

Last season: 62-20 (1st in the Southwest Division, 1st in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy after Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat

Key Additions:

  • Kyle Anderson – Draft (No. 30 in the 2014 NBA Draft)

Key Departures:

  • Aron Baynes – Unsigned

Season Preview – Everyone keeps waiting for the Spurs to age, but every year, they come back wiser and better. The reigning NBA champs come back with the entire team basically intact. While chemistry won’t be an issue, a couple of the main players are coming back from injury. Manu Ginobili spent most of the offseason nursing a stress fracture in his leg and Patty Mills had rotator cuff surgery that will keep him out half the season. But as is the Spurs, they will turn that into a positive as Mills will be very well rested when the playoffs start next April.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Spurs repeat as champions

Projected 2014-15 Record: 59-23

2. Memphis Grizzlies

prince gasol allen conley randolph grizzlies

Last season: 50-32 (3rd in the Southwest Division, 7th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder

Key Additions:

  • Jordan Adams – Draft (No. 22 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Vince Carter – Free agent signing
  • Jarnell Stokes – Draft (No. 35 in the 2014 NBA Draft)

Key Departures:

  • Jamaal Franklin – Waived
  • Ed Davis – Signed with the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Mike Miller – Signed with the Chicago Bulls
  • James Johnson – Signed with the Toronto Raptors

Season Preview – The Grizzlies have slowly put together a balanced team that doesn’t entirely depend on the post play of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The additions of Jordan Adams and Vince Carter, and the return of Quincy Pondexter from injury should help spread the floor for the big man duo to operate a little easier in the interior. Mike Conley remains one of the more underrated floor generals in the league and Tony Allen is still a premier defensive menace, as we saw in last season’s playoff series against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Grizzlies make it to the Western Conference Finals

Projected 2014-15 Record: 54-28

3. Dallas Mavericks

nowitzki ellis mavericks

Last season: 49-33 (4th in the Southwest Division, 8th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs

Key Additions:

  • Al Farouq Aminu – Signed free agent
  • Tyson Chandler – Obtained in a trade with the New York Knicks
  • Raymond Felton – Obtained in a trade with the New York Knicks
  • Richard Jefferson – Signed free agent
  • Ivan Johnson – Signed free agent
  • Jameer Nelson – Signed free agent
  • Chandler Parsons – Signed free agent
  • Greg Smith – Obtained in a trade with the Chicago Bulls

Key Departures:

  • Jose Calderon – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Shane Larkin – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Shawn Marion – Signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Samuel Dalembert – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Vince Carter – Signed with the Memphis Grizzlies
  • DeJuan Blair – Sign and traded to the Washington Wizards

Season Preview – Other than the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Mavericks probably had the most player movement of any team in the leauge. The team that took the eventual champs to 7 games in the first round, got their defensive stopper in the lane (Chandler), and got an up-and-coming star in Chandler Parsons. The Mavs should be a little better balanced defensively, but that all depends on the health of Chandler. If he misses a big chunk of the season (15-20+ games), the Mavericks could be in trouble defensively. The point guard position is also a question mark, as each of the three possibilities (Felton, Nelson, and Devin Harris) have been starters in the past, but also have glaring weaknesses.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Mavs make it to the Western Conference Finals

Projected 2014-15 Record: 53-29

4. Houston Rockets

harden howard rockets

Last season: 54-28 (2nd in the Southwest Division, 4th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 6 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Portland Trailblazers

Key Additions:

  • Jeff Adrien – Free agent signing
  • Trevor Ariza – Free agent signing
  • Clint Capela – Draft (No. 25 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Jason Terry – Obtained in a trade with the Sacramento Kings
  • Joey Dorsey – Free agent signing
  • Ish Smith – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Jeremy Lin – Traded to the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Omer Asik – Traded to the New Orleans Pelicans
  • Chandler Parsons – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Jordan Hamilton – Signed with the Toronto Raptors

Season Preview – After striking gold in the last two offseasons, Rockets GM Daryl Morey hit a rough patch this offseason. He traded away 2 of this team’s top 5 players (Asik and Lin) for basically nothing, and failed to resign Parsons, even though the Rockets held his Bird Rights. The reasons they made these moves was an “all in” attempt at either Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. By the time those two players had re-signed with their respective teams, the damage had already been done to the Rockets’ roster. The Rockets salvaged a little life this offseason by signing Trevor Ariza. The Rockets will still win games due to the talent of James Harden and Dwight Howard. But depth will be an issue, and any injury to any of the major players on the Rockets will be a huge blow to the team’s playoff chances.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Rockets make it to the 2nd round of the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 47-35

5. New Orleans Pelicans

Jrue Holiday, Tony Wroten, Anthony Davis

Last season: 34-48 (5th in the Southwest Division, 12th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Omer Asik – Obtained in a trade with the Houston Rockets
  • Jimmer Fredette – Free agent signing
  • John Salmons – Free agent signing
  • Russ Smith – Draft (No. 47 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Patric Young – Rookie free agent signing (Undrafted)

Key Departures:

  • Al-Farouq Aminu – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Greg Stiemsma – Signed with the Toronto Raptors
  • Jason Smith – Signed with the New York Knicks
  • Anthony Morrow – Signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Brian Roberts – Signed with the Charlotte Hornets

Season Preview – After a great showing in the FIBA World Cup, Anthony Davis is ready to finally take his team to another level. The acquisition of Asik will allow Davis to play his natural position of power forward. On the outside, Ryan Anderson returns from neck surgery and should help space the floor for Davis and Jrue Holiday to operate. The depth of this team is worrisome, and if the injury bug hits again, they could once again struggle to stay above water.

2014-15 will be succesful if: The Pelican make the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 42-40

Five Thoughts from the Memphis Series

durant ibaka westbrook thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 120-109 on Saturday to move onto the 2nd round of the playoffs. But before we move on, here’s 5 thoughts about the series that was.

1. The Overtimes and the plays leading up to them.

Four consecutive overtime games. Let that sink in for a minute. Your adrenaline pumps and heart races for one overtime game. But four…..in a row. The life span of the average Oklahoman (and Memphian, for that matter) probably dropped by about 2.5 years in this series. But the overtimes only tell half of the story in those four games.

The mad dashes that led to the overtimes were even more impressive. Here’s a recap of the major plays that led to the 5th period in those games:

Game 2: Set-up – Thunder down by 5 with 18 seconds to go.

  • Fall away 3-pointer by Durant in the corner while being fouled by Marc Gasol. Free throw good. Thunder down 1.
  • Free throw by Mike Conley. Grizzlies up 2 with 12 second left.
  • Russell Westbrook 3-point miss rebounded by Kendrick Perkins who goes up for a put-back with no time on the clock. Tied game. And on to overtime.

Game 3: Set-up – Thunder down by 17 with 7:30 minutes left in the 4th quarter. Thunder go on a 17-0 run to tie the game at 81 with 57 seconds left.

  • Tony Allen lay-up to put the Grizzlies up by two with 45 seconds.
  • Tony Allen steal and lay-up puts the Grizzlies up by 4 with 33 seconds left.
  • Russell Westbrook 4-point play ties the game at 85 with 26 seconds left.
  • Each team misses their finals shots. And on to overtime.

Game 4: Set-up – Thunder down by 5 with 1:20 left, after starting the quarter with a 12 point lead.

  • Reggie Jackson (the only effective Thunder player the entire night) launches (and makes) a step-back three with 59 seconds left. Thunder down by two.
  • After stealing a pass off of Beno Udrih, Durant passes to Jackson who runs off of a pick and roll and scores on a floater with 30 seconds left to tie the game.
  • After a mad scramble on the defensive end in which the Grizzlies had 2 opportunities to tie the game, Jackson ends up with the ball with 4 seconds left, but inexplicably heaves a 60 footer that bounces inbounds as the clock expires. And on to overtime.

Game 5: Set-up – Thunder down by two after the first of Tony Allen’s two free throws goes down with 30 seconds left. (Of note: The Thunder have no timeouts left)

  • Allen misses the 2nd free throw, but Tayshaun Prince gets the offensive rebound. After almost getting the ball stolen, Memphis calls a time out.
  • After the time out, Mike Conley dribbles at the top of the key. With the shot clock running down, Conley makes a move towards the basket, but Westbrook reaches across Conley’s body, knocks the ball loose, and takes it the other way for a game-tying fast break dunk. And on to overtime.

In all honesty, the overtimes proved to be a bit anti-climatic in comparison to those crazy final minutes in the fourth quarters.

2. Interior Defense

When you play the Grizzlies, the one thing that has to be on point is your interior defense. If you don’t have a set of defensive bigs that can combat what Memphis throws at you, then you might as well pack it up. Last season, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol bore through the Thunder’s interior defense like a hot knife through butter. It was so much of an embarrassment, that Kendrick Perkins felt the need to apology for his play after the series. But this time around, Perkins, Ibaka, and Steven Adams proved up to the task, essentially neutralizing the Grizzlies’ biggest offensive strength.

perkins jackson ibaka gasol thunder grizzlies

In last season’s playoff series, Gasol and Randolph shot 68/146 (47%). In this playoff series, the interior duo for Memphis shot 89-220 (40%). Everybody talks about the struggles that Westbrook and Durant experienced during the series, but equally as damning for their team, was the struggles that Gasol and Randolph had with scoring. And once Durant and Westbrook got going again in Games 6 and 7, it was too difficult for the the Memphis duo to keep up, especially with Randolph being suspended for the final game.

3. The Role Players

Many people wondered why Caron Butler decided to sign with the Thunder, instead of with the two-time champion Miami Heat. If Butler was title chasing, the easiest route would have been to latch on with Miami and probably be a 9th man for them. But Tuff Juice probably saw an opportunity with the Thunder to not only compete for a championship, but also be a regular part of the rotation.

Many people like to label Butler as a champion since he was a member of the Dallas Mavericks team that won the championship in 2011. What many people fail to mention is that Butler had a knee injury mid-season, and didn’t participate in any games for the Mavericks in the playoffs that season. Yes, he got a ring, but I wonder if he feels like that ring hardly holds any weight. Pride can easily turn happiness into a question mark that stays on the mind.

So, when Butler’s number was called on to start in place of an ineffective Thabo Sefolosha for Game 6, he showed that he was ready for this moment. He only scored 7 points in that game, but the effect of Butler as a perimeter threat, opened up the lanes enough for Westbrook and Durant to get back in their groove.

butler westbrook jackson thunder

Reggie Jackson has the hardest job in the world. He has to be the main facilitator and scorer on a bench unit that is about as hot and cold as it gets. Then he has to be the third option on the floor with Durant and Westbrook. If he does something bad during his time on the floor with the superstar duo, then the spot light shines on him. But if he does something good, then it probably had to do with the fact that Durant and Westbrook took so much of the defense’s attention which allowed Jackson to have an open lane or a wide open shot.

Then Game 4 happened. I’ve never seen a situation where two alpha males completely give the reins to the game over to somebody other than themselves. A lot of times, Durant and Westbrook are like the Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett of the NBA: “We ride together, we die together, bad boys for life”. But in this one instance, whether it was their own insecurities in their play or a new confidence in another player not seen since the Harden days, Durant and Westbrook allowed Jackson to take over the game and in the end, win it for them. In reality, Jackson saved the season with his mini-explosion in Game 4.

4. Durant and Westbrook returning to form

Probably the biggest narrative of this series was the slump that both Durant and Westbrook faced in the Games 2-5. Without an unexpected career game from Jackson, the series would have probably been done in 5 games, much like last season. In those 4 games, the duo shot 73-209 from the field. That is a whooping 35% for two All-NBA players. Many media member started playing the Westbrook vs. Durant angle to the point that Westbrook felt the need to address it in an interview after Game 3.

durant westbrook allen conley thunder grizzlies

Then the Oklahoman decided to print one of the dumbest headlines since the Chicago Tribune declared Thomas E. Dewey the winner of the 1948 Presidential election. Mr. Unreliable. A name that describes many people, namely deadbeat dads, parole violators, and teenagers. Not a name that describes Kevin Durant, the basketball player. If anything, he’s been Mr. Reliable his entire career. The attempted explanation and subsequent apology explained what the headline itself was trying to convey, but the damage had already been done to the newspaper.

Durant took it in stride, but you could tell that the headline perplexed him a bit. Great players always play their best when the cards are stacked against them. Down 3-2 with an elimination game in Memphis, Durant and Westbrook slowed their games down a bit, and started playing their brand of basketball. In Games 6 and 7, the pair averaged 60.5 points, 18.5 rebounds, and 12.5 assists per game on 54/53/88 shooting.

5. The Wake-Up Call

The Thunder needed this kick in the rear end. They slept walked through the final month of the season, and probably had this aura about them that they could turn it on or off at any point in the playoffs. But this season’s playoffs were a bit different. The 7th seeded Grizzlies were probably more of a 3 or 4 seed, were it not for injuries and having to play in the tough Western Conference.

But, the name of the game is surviving and advancing, and the Thunder did just that. If the Thunder are fortunate enough to rack up 12 more victories, they should look back on this series and appreciate the fact that Memphis made them work so hard to get to Round 2.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Game 7 Recap

butler durant thunder

Have you ever been away from your significant other for an extended period of time without seeing them (be it a job deployment or a self-imposed hiatus)? And then you see them again and they’ve lost 20 pounds, gotten highlights in their hair, and upped their confidence rating. And you are left wondering, “How do I act around this person?”

Well, that’s kind of how the first 18 minutes went for the Oklahoma City Thunder in this game. The Thunder had battled the Grizzlies the same for the past 6 games (the 2 bigs, Mike Conley, a streaky Courtney Lee, and an ineffective “why the hell is he still starting?” Tayshaun Prince, with Mike Miller, Beno Udrih, and Tony Allen sprinkled in between there). But the Zach Randolph suspension in Game 7 kind of flipped the script for Memphis and they came out with an entirely different line-up that threw the Thunder for a loop. Out was Prince (and, of course, Randolph), and in was Miller and Allen. The Grizzlies started small out of necessity and held their largest lead of 11 points with 40 seconds left in the 1st quarter. They finished the first quarter up by 9 at 36-27. That’ right. 36 points for the Grizzlies in a quarter.

The beginning of the 2nd quarter was more of the same, but Memphis’s depth issues started to become a problem near the middle of the 2nd quarter. After two free throws by Gasol at the 8:40 mark of the 2nd quarter, the Grizzlies missed their next 7 shots and turned the ball over twice. By the time Conley made a shot with 4:43 left, the Thunder had tied up the game at 44.

After that point, the Thunder smelled blood and kept on attacking to take a 3 point lead heading into halftime. In the third quarter, it was more of the same as the Grizzlies didn’t make their FG of the 2nd half until 6:35 remaining in the third quarter. By that point, the Thunder were up 78-65 and had all the momentum moving forward. They never let the lead get under 10 points for the rest of the game and ended up winning 120-109.

A couple thoughts on the game:

  • The Grizzlies were forced to play the Thunder’s style and it completely backfired on them from the middle of the 2nd quarter on. The pace was not condusive to the Grizzlies style, but it fit right in the Thunder’s wheel-house.

 

  • The pace also caused the Grizzlies’ turnovers to go up (14), which led to 31 points for the Thunder off of those turnovers.

 

  • If its a Game 7 against the Grizzlies, then Russell Westbrook must be due for a triple double (27/10/16)

 

  • After shooting 12-21 (57%) in the 1st quarter, the Grizzlies went on to shoot 25-62 (40%) for the rest of the game. Gotta love that regression.

 

  • Kevin Durant, since the headline: 69 points and 18 rebounds on 56/45/86 shooting. I’m still not giving you credit The Oklahoman.

 

  • Caron Butler only made one 3, but made 8-9 foul shots to finish with 15 points.

 

  • Reggie Jackson was great in his role – 16 points on 5-6 shooting (2-3 from 3 and 4-4 from the line). Efficiency, for the win!

 

  • It’s onto to Round 2. Oklahoma City, you can all let out a collective sigh of relief.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Game 7 Preview

gasol ibaka thunder grizzlies

  • When: Saturday, 03 May 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Game 7. Those are the only 2 words you need to know about this game. Win or go home for both teams. Thankfully we have home court advantage. Game 6 was more what I expected to see from this team throughout this first round match-up. If Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would have played 10% better in Games 2-5, this would’ve been a 5 game series. Instead, they struggled and allowed the Grizzlies to win three of four games that went to overtime.

Then the headline happened.

Durant doesn’t need motivation. There are some players that are self-motivated. Motivated by success. Motivated by legacy. Motivated by the hate to lose. That’s Durant. He’s been that way since day one. But sometimes, stupid headlines can piss you off to the point where it appears like motivation. If having your back against the wall wasn’t motivation enough, then this headline probably served as a accelerant, not only for Durant, but also for the entire team (coaches included).

Game 6 is more the pace that I expected to see from the team. Russell Westbrook playing a smart game, Serge Ibaka controlling the paint, Reggie Jackson giving what was needed when he was in the game, and Durant being his MVP self. More importantly, though, nothing came easy for the Grizzlies. The Thunder completely iced any pick and roll and the Grizzlies were not up to the task from the perimeter.

3 Keys to the Game

1. Adjustments – Oklahoma City made them in Game 6. The Grizzlies are being forced to make them in Game 7. The Zach Randolph suspension not only throws a wrench in the Grizzlies’ plans, but also in the Thunder’s plans. What do the Grizzlies plan to do? Will they start small with James Johnson or Mike Miller or will they remain big with either Kosta Koufos or Ed Davis? If the Grizzlies go small, expect to see Perkins’ minutes go down extensively. If the Grizzlies go big, business as usual.

2. Injured Bears – Randolph and Nick Calathes suspended. Mike Conley has a strained hamstring that he says would have kept him on the sidelines if this was a regular season game. Tony Allen is questionable because of migraines associated with an injured eye suffered in Game 6. To all of this, I say, poppycock. To me, all this information is lip service. Conley and Allen will play and will leave it all on the floor.

allen jackson westbrook ibaka thunder grizzlies

3. Pace – The biggest difference in Game 6 from Games 2-5, was pace. The Thunder pushed the ball and had the Grizzlies on skates all night. We’ll probably see a lot more small ball from the Grizzlies in this gam due to the Randolph suspension. But, it won’t be new to the Grizzlies. The dirty secret about the Randolph suspension is that the Grizzlies rarely played with Z-Bo in the 4th quarters of games. Gasol is a better big to have in small ball line-ups and it showed many times late in games in this series.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies Game 3 preview

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder

Going in, we knew this would be a tough series. Memphis has their short-comings, but they do two things extremely well that make them a tough out: they play defense and they play as a team. We’ve seen both of these qualities exhibited in the first two games. Even when Memphis got down by 22 at the half in Game 1, they never abandoned their principles and pulled within two points before tiring out at the end. In Game 2, Memphis’ defense made life for the Thunder miserable, but it was Memphis’ offense that came alive. The team that scored 96.1 points per game in the regular season, erupted for 111 points in the second game. Many will look to the Thunder’s offense for adjustments in Game 3, but the key will be the Thunder’s defensive adjustments.

3 Defensive Adjustments

1. Go Over the Screens – Of all the teams to go over on screens in the Western Conference playoffs, this would be the best team to do this against. Mike Conley and Ben Udrih are not willing 3-point shooters and are more comfortable on the move towards the basket. But instead, the Thunder keep going under the screens and allowing the Memphis guards to move towards the basket. This causes the defense to collapse and puts it on skates. If the Thunder perimeter defenders are able to stay in front of the drives, this will go a long way in preventing the slew of points in the paint.

westbrook conley grizzlies thunder

2. Don’t Lose Your Man – The Thunder got caught ball watching a couple times in the game, and it cost them. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince aren’t necessarily great offensive players, but if you give them an open look near the basket, they’ll make it a high percentage of the time.

3. Rebounding – One of the big adjustments the Grizzlies made was getting back on defense after every shot in order to stop transition. If the Grizzlies are going to do that, then the Thunder cannot allow them to get 12 offensive boards, three of which were in the overtime period and led to four extra points.

3 Offensive Adjustments

1. Bench – If the Thunder are to win, they are going to need more than 14 points from their vaunted bench unit (which consequently, was the same amount of points that Beno Udrih scored). Derek Fisher and Caron Butler only combined for one 3-pointer on four attempts and Reggie Jackson looked like a shell of himself. Also, Steven Adams would have probably helped on the big boys from Memphis. Hopefully, the bench comes out more aggressive in Game 3.

durant randolph allen grizzlies thunder

2. Spacing – The Grizzlies like to crowd the floor with their big men. The Thunder were caught too many times either having their pick and rolls iced or picking up their dribble and not being able to find their intended target (usually Durant). The key will probably be Ibaka. If Ibaka can hit that mid-range jumper, it may cause the defender to lay off the guard and stay on Ibaka. Once that happens, Durant, Westbrook, or Jackson will have the space necessary to operate in the paint.

3. Kendrick Perkins Pick – You want to get Tony Allen off Kevin Durant? Have him meet Kendrick Perkins. Nothing malicious, but enough to send a message.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder series preview

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder

So it’s set. First up on Oklahoma City’s platter is the team that knocked them out of last season’s playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies. It took a bit longer than expected for the playoff seeding to be decided, but in the end, it was almost manifest destiny for these two teams to meet in the playoffs once more. It’s like fate didn’t really like how the series played out last season (you know, no Russell Westbrook and all), so she decided to initiate a do-over.

Fate has a habit of matching the Thunder against opponents they have a history with. Last season it was James Harden-led Houston Rockets in the first round (and the subsequent Patrick Beverly fallout). Two seasons ago, it was the Dallas Mavericks, who had beaten the Thunder the previous season in the Western Conference Finals and the Los Angeles Lakers, in a metaphorical passing of the torch.

Regular season series

Wins in the regular season don’t always paint a clear picture as to how a series will play out. Many variables exist during the season that do not exist during the playoffs. Scheduling, fatigue, and sample size are all factors that come into play during the regular season, but have little to no bearing during the playoffs. But there are always factors within a season series that are highly applicable to the playoff series.

westbrook conley thunder grizzlies

The Thunder won the season series against the Grizzlies 3-1. Injuries played a major role in the outcome of a couple of the games. In the first game, a 116-100 OKC victory, the Grizzlies were without Marc Gasol, who was out with a knee injury. In the second game, a 90-87 Memphis victory, the Thunder were without Russell Westbrook, while the Grizzlies had their full complement of players.  In the 3rd game, both team were without their starting point guards, but the Thunder prevailed 86-77. The fourth game, a 113-107 OKC victory, saw both teams basically at full strength (even though Kendrick Perkins was out and Thabo Sefolosha only played 4 minutes) and is probably more indicative as to how the series will go.

Schedule

  • Game 1 – Saturday, 19 April 2014 at 8:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 2 – Monday, 21 April 2014 at 7:00 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 3 – Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 7:00 PM CST (FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN)
  • Game 4 – Tuesday, 26 April 2014 at 8:30 PM CST (FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN)
  • Game 5 – Tuesday, 29 April 2014 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
  • Game 6 – Thursday, 01 May 2014 TBD (FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN)*
  • Game 7 – Saturday, 03 May 2014 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*

* If necessary

Probable Starting Line-ups

Memphis Grizzlies

  • PG – Mike Conley
  • SG – Courtney Lee
  • SF – Tayshaun Prince
  • PF – Zach Randolph
  • C – Marc Gasol
  • Bench depth – Tony Allen, Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos, Ed Davis, Beno Udrih

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins
  • Bench depth – Reggie Jackson, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Series

Post defense – Strength on strength. The Grizzlies’ offensive strong suit is the Thunder’s defensive strong suit. The Thunder have no problem packing the paint and retreating back on shooters. In fact, it’s what they do best (not the retreating back on shooters part, though). The Thunder have 4 players capable of defending Gasol, Randolph, and Kosta Koufos. What will be interesting is who starts off on who. Positionally, it should be Ibaka on Randolph and Perkins on Gasol. But, style-wise, Randolph’s bruising style is more suited for Perkins and Ibaka should be able to stay on Gasol, who likes to operate from 15 feet in.

perkins ibaka randolph gasol thunder grizzlies

Pace – Memphis tries to muddy up the game and keep it in the 90’s. If they are able to run their offense (half court-oriented, using a lot of the clock), and are able to dictate how you run your offense, that keeps them in their comfort zone. But if you force turnovers, score in transition, and don’t allow them to settle in defensively, it becomes very difficult for the Grizzlies to keep up in the scoring department.

Point guards – Probably the biggest factors in the series. Last season, the Thunder were without Russell Westbrook for the entire series. This season, the Grizzlies come into the series with a point guard that may have a nagging hamstring injury (Conley) and no back-up, due to Nick Calathes being suspended for 20 games due to a failed drug test. The Grizzlies come into the series with a slightly injured starting point guard and Beno Udrih. The Thunder on the other hand, come into the series with both their point guards in tow.

X-factors

For Memphis – Their X-factor is Mike Miller. The one way to combat a defense that focuses on the paint is to punish it with perimeter shooting. Mike Miller has the ability to punish teams from the outside, and it’s one of the reasons the Thunder pursued so aggressively in the offseason.

miller thabeet thunder grizzlies

For Oklahoma City – Their X-factor is Reggie Jackson. With Calathes being suspended for the series, Jackson should run roughshod when he’s in the game against the bench.

Prediction

Thunder in 5.

Two things: First thing, not only is Russell Westbrook back and healthy for the Thunder, but the point guard depth for the Grizzlies took a hit with Calathes’ suspension. Secondly, Kevin Durant has taken last season’s disappointment and learned from it. He’s more adept at finding the open man and willing to punish teams with the pass, instead of firing up an ill-advised jumper with two or three defenders draped on him.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 59 of 82)

Oklahoma City Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Three

  • When: Friday, 28 February 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Okay, guys. This whole “we’re just getting acclimated once again to life with Russell, while also missing Perk” thing was cute for about two games. Now, it’s kind of becoming a bit of a thing. The problem is, the offense has not been the issue. Many people thought the offense would suffer a bit as Westbrook tries to work out the kinks on his road to recovery from a 3rd knee surgery in an 8 month period. Instead, it is the defense that has looked abhorrent. The Thunder have given up two 40+ point quarters in the last two games, while allowing their opponents 114 points per game in the last 3 games. That is definitely not Thunder basketball.

This will be the 4th meeting of the year between these two teams. The Thunder lead the season series 2-1, with the last two games being dog fights that were decided in the 4th quarter. The Grizzlies eliminated the Thunder from last season’s playoffs in the 2nd round in 5 games. In the last 8 meetings between these two teams, Westbrook has only played in one of those games, a 116-100 Thunder victory.

The Opponent

gasol conley allen randolph grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies currently sit at 32-24, half a game back of the 8th seeded Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference. Participants in last season’s Western Conference Finals, the Grizzlies were looked at as one of the dark horses to come out of the West this season. Injuries have played a part in their current position in the conference, but with the entire team finally healthy, the Grizzlies have reeled off 6 wins in their last 8 games. The cornerstones of the offense, Mike Conley (ankle) and Marc Gasol (knee), have worked their ways back from injury and are starting to find their rhythm. Zach Randolph continues to be an effective double/double machine averaging 17.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Due to the health of the team, the bench has gotten a boost from the return of Tony Allen from a hand injury, and the consistent play, of late, from James Johnson and Kosta Koufos.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Memphis Grizzlies

  • PG – Mike Conley
  • SG – Courtney Lee
  • SF – Tayshaun Prince
  • PF – Zach Randolph
  • C – Marc Gasol

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Foul Trouble – Randolph, Gasol, and Koufos are all crafty big men that play the game with as much IQ as they do brute strength. They know that Ibaka still bites on pump fakes a bit and that Steven Adams is just a rookie. It’s important that Ibaka, Adams, and Nick Collison use their fouls wisely and don’t get into foul trouble.

NBA:  Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder

2. Transition – True to their motto, Memphis loves to grind the game down to a half court affair with the big boys inside while also caring for the ball. They average only 12.6 turnovers per game, good for 3rd in the league. Look for the Thunder to swarm the ball when it goes to the post to try and create turnovers.

3. Pace – Does this game become a grinder or do the Thunder impose their will and push the pace. Look for the Thunder to go small if the game is close in order to push the pace a bit and get the Grizzlies out of their element.