Oklahoma City Versus Memphis PreviewWestern Conference Second Round
#4 Oklahoma City (55-27) vs. #8 Memphis (46-36)
Season series: Memphis, 3-1
Memphis can win if…Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol control the paint, Mike Conley harasses Russell Westbrook into some inefficient shooting performances and Shane Battier (and Memphis' other wing defenders) hold Kevin Durant to under 25 ppg/.450 field goal shooting.
Oklahoma City will win because…Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed form a big, mobile and versatile frontcourt rotation that matches up very well with the Grizzlies' power forwards/centers. Ron Artest's physical defense in the first round of the 2010 playoffs slowed down Durant but Durant lit up the Denver Nuggets for 32.4 ppg on .471 field goal shooting in the first round of this year's playoffs and Durant is likely to post similar numbers against whoever Memphis throws at him. Conley did a credible job versus Tony Parker as the Grizzlies pulled off the rare first round upset of a number one seed but Westbrook is bigger, stronger and more athletic that Parker.
Other things to consider: Memphis won the regular season series 3-1 but Perkins did not play in any of those games. The Thunder now have all of the requisite parts to win a championship; the only thing that they lack is collective playoff experience (Perkins has championship experience from playing with the 2008 Boston Celtics but collectively the Thunder's current rotation with Perkins starting at center has not even been together for half a season).
TNT's Charles Barkley predicted that Memphis would beat San Antonio and he was right that the Grizzlies' frontcourt was too big for the Spurs to contain but I still think that Memphis' victory is surprising, if not shocking. Granted, the Spurs have an aging nucleus and each of their three top players experienced some kind of injury in the last month or so but the Spurs were the best and most consistent team in the NBA from October until the end of March; this is just the fourth time that an eighth seed defeated a number one seed since the creation of the current playoff format in 1984 and there were extenuating circumstances for at least two of the previous upsets: in the lockout-shortened 50 game 1999 season the 27-23 New York Knicks were only six games behind the 33-17 Miami Heat, while in the 2007 season the Golden State Warriors used a gimmicky small lineup and rode a wave of great three point shooting to knock off the shell-shocked Dallas Mavericks, a team that seemed to be psyched out before the series began when Dallas Coach Avery Johnson changed a starting lineup that had gone 37-6 during the regular season (the Mavericks finished 67-15 overall). This season was not distorted by a lockout, the Grizzlies did not use any gimmicks and the Spurs did not change their lineup (with the exception of Manu Ginobili missing game one); the Grizzlies just systematically outplayed a 61 win team whose core players helped the Spurs win the 2003, 2005 and 2007 NBA championships. Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks have been viewed with a somewhat jaundiced eye since their 2007 loss to Golden State, so I wonder how the Spurs' loss will affect the way that the Spurs are perceived; the Mavs in general and Nowitzki in particular have received a bum rap and I do not think that it would be right to just bash the Spurs--an aging team that has a championship pedigree--but it also would not be right to act as if the Spurs' loss is anything other than a very surprising and very disappointing ending for a team that had to be considered a legit championship contender based on their track record and based on how well they played over the course of the 2010-11 season.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:00 AM