Thursday, April 17, 2014

West Round 1 Preview: (2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies

Russell Westbrook at the top of his game might be the difference between a 1st Round exit and a trip to the Finals.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

By the Numbers:

Oklahoma City:
59-23 (34-7 Home; 25-16 Road)
PPG: 106.2 (5th); PPG Allowed: 99.8 (12th)
+6.3 Average Scoring Margin (3rd)
Off Rating: 108.1 (7th); Def Rating: 101.0 (5th)
+7.1 Net Efficiency Rating (3rd)

50-32 (27-14 Home; 23-18 Road)
PPG: 96.1 (27th); PPG Allowed: 94.6 (3rd)
+1.6 Average Scoring Margin (14th)
Off Rating: 103.3 (16th); Def Rating: 102.1 (8th)
+1.2 Net Efficiency Rating (14th)

Season Series: Oklahoma City 3-1
Oklahoma City 116, Memphis 100 (December 11)
Memphis 90, Oklahoma City 87 (January 14)
Oklahoma City 86, Memphis 77 (February 3)
Oklahoma City 113, Memphis 107 (February 28)

Players to Watch:

Russell Westbrook

Westbrook, probably in thanks to his two injuries this season, has been by far the most under-the-radar superstar in the league. He only played 45 games (by far a career low) and only averaged 30.6 minutes per game (another career low, and substantially lower than his previous three All-Star seasons), but his per-minute numbers are staggering: 25.6 Points/36 minutes (a career high), 8.1 assists (2nd-best in his career), and 6.7 rebounds (by far a career high). His PER (24.6), True Shooting Percentage (.545), and Effective Field Goal Percentage (.483) were also each career highs.

There are aspects of the game where he still isn't back to form - he's much more tentative going towards the basket, and you can see this when you look at his foul rate (below career averages) and his three-point rate (shooting them far more often than ever before), and he's still a bit cautious fighting over screens on defense (which is understandable, it's a good way to bang your knee into something that knees shouldn't bang into, namely, other knees), but on par he's playing as effective as he ever has.

He only played roughly 1400 minutes this season, and the Thunder survived about as well in the 2500+ minutes he was on the bench this season (OKC sported a +7.8 Net Efficiency Rating with Westbrook on the floor, +6.3 without him), but they'll need him at full strength in the playoffs if they want to make a deep run. And after these Grizzlies knocked the Thunder out of the playoffs last year sans Westbrook, I'm sure that he'll be playing with something to prove.

Marc Gasol

Marc Gasol started 59 games, and Memphis went 40-19 in those games. Marc Gasol sat for 23 games, and Memphis went 10-13. This isn't a coincidence. It may seem like it with Gasol's -3.3 On/Off Rating, but those numbers are noisy and the brass tax numbers suggest Memphis is a substantially better team with Gasol in the lineup. 

Memphis' success in the playoffs, particularly in this series, will be dependent on Gasol providing offensive creativity from the high post. If Gasol can be a weapon on offense, it will bait Oklahoma City into keeping Kendrick Perkins on the floor, and Memphis will like the odds of being able to slow down Oklahoma City's offense if it's forced to play 4-on-5 against their defense. Memphis is built on the continuity of their system and their one core lineup. Their starting lineup is by far their best and most consistent lineup - Conley, Lee, Prince, Randolph, and Gasol were a +7.4 in almost 600 minutes this season. When you swap Gasol for Kosta Koufos (the starter while Gasol was out), the lineup was just +0.3 in slightly over 150 minutes.

Gasol suffered a few bumps and bruises in Wednesday night's win over Dallas as both teams fought to avoid San Antonio in Round 1. Gasol at times seemed to be favoring both his knee and his ankle. He'll need to be at full strength if they want to have any hope of pulling an upset.

The Case for Oklahoma City:

Simply put, they have the highest ceiling of any team in the Western Conference. Durant's explosion as a passer and defender (two reasons he's the front-runner for MVP this year) has given the team a level of flexibility that they've never had before. The offense still has hiccups in late-game scenarios, and they never totally replaced Kevin Martin, who didn't totally replace James Harden (if you squint your eyes *really* tight, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb combine to be vaguely Harden/Martin-esque, but it's still not the real thing and neither Jackson nor Lamb get to the line often enough to offset sub-par shooting from range), but the Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka triumvirate is so deadly on both ends of the floor that it doesn't even really matter who the other two players on the floor are - the fact that Derek Fisher hasn't single-handedly submarined the team is good proof of that. If Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka are at their best, there's no team in the West that can beat them.

Best-Case Scenario: Durant continues to play like the MVP. Westbrook plays in 12th gear for the entire series with a chip on his shoulder out to prove that last year's injury was the only reason they lost. Reggie Jackson plays in 12th gear for the entire series with a chip on his shoulder out to prove that he's not just a terrible facsimile of James Harden who cost the team the series last year because he couldn't fill Westbrook's shoes. Scott Brooks doesn't fall into the Kendrick Perkins/Derek Fisher/Caron Butler trap and the Thunder sweep easily.

The Case for Memphis:

Grit. Grind. Repeat.

Oklahoma City played at a fairly quick pace this year - they averaged 95.5 possessions per game, which was the 9th-fastest in the league. Memphis, on the other hand, was dead last at 89.9 per game. If they can make the game slow and ugly, keep Kendrick Perkins on the floor as much as possible, generally do their best impression of the mid-90s Knicks or late-90s Heat, and they can keep the scores in the 80s and 90s......

Tactically, they don't have many advantages. Oklahoma City has the size to deal with their front line, and Memphis doesn't have any one guy who can check Durant even a little (it's starting to seem like only three teams do - San Antonio, Indiana, and Miami). What might be their best opportunity to catch Oklahoma City off guard is if they simply turn Mike Conley loose against a still-recovering Russell Westbrook. If they just keep careening Westbrook into high screens with Conley peeling off towards the middle of the floor.....

It all comes down to Memphis' defense against Oklahoma City's offense - the other end is going to be a rock-fight regardless. Against San Antonio last year, certain elements of Memphis' defense were exposed and the Spurs just beat them to death in the same spots over and over again. If Oklahoma City can find those same flaws, it's curtains. But if the Grizzlies have painted over those spots and can sufficiently confuse Durant....

Best-Case Scenario: Memphis is able to pull off everything mentioned in the previous three paragraphs - Westbrook remains tentative, putting an undue amount of pressure on Durant, who can't find his shot. With no real safety valve, the Thunder offense sputters and Memphis wins in 6.

The Pick:

Oklahoma City in 5. 

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