Hyperbolic columnists and TV promos will bill the Western Conference Semifinal as a clash between Kevin Durant and Zach Randolph. They’ve earned the hype: in their most recent fourth quarters, the two stars combined for 33 points and willed their respective teams to victory over feisty opponents.
Despite what ABC’s fondest hopes, though, other, less telegenic players will have a say in the series’ outcome. Check out these numbers: Durant was a one-man wrecking crew in four regular-season matchups against Randolph’s Memphis Grizzlies, averaging with 30.5 points and 8.3 rebounds. His Oklahoma City Thunder’s record in those contests? One win, three losses.
That’s terrifying on the surface for Thunder fans, because it means that their superstar could outperform his outstanding regular-season numbers and still be unable to produce enough wins to advance.
The best bets to step up and give KD the support he needs:
Kendrick Perkins – Amazingly, all four of the Thunder’s clashes with Memphis this season happened with Perkins out of the lineup. In the first three, he was still playing for the Boston Celtics; he was injured for the fourth. Now he’s the Thunder’s best hope of neutralizing Marc Gasol, who stunned the basketball world by abusing Tim Duncan in the first round. Perkins had little trouble keeping Nene bottled up in the Thunder’s five-game win over Denver, but Gasol offers a more refined low-post attack that may not be as susceptible to Perkins’ physical brand of defense.
The Thunder’s best-case scenario is that Gasol lucked into an ideal matchup against the aging Spurs, and will come back to earth a bit. His pedestrian regular-season numbers (11.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg) give cause for hope, but the Thunder might wonder how much of that was due to matching up with Serge Ibaka, who was manning the middle at the time. And he still shot 58% from the field in those matchups, so stopping him might be as difficult for OKC as it was for Gregg Popovich’s crew.
Russell Westbrook – Came under fire for his questionable decision-making against Denver, but might have an easier time against two point guards who can’t match his physical explosiveness. He dominated Memphis during the season (24.5 ppg, 9.0 apg, 4.5 rpg, 47% FG), although that might again give the Thunder pause since his statistical explosion only produced a 25% victory rate. On paper, the Grizzlies’ point guards can’t hope to stay with him. One late-game X-factor might be Memphis’ option to check Westbrook with Tony Allen, who’s brimming with confidence after battling Manu Ginobili to a standstill and has the physical makeup to stay with him.
Ibaka – The best hope to corral Randolph, who ran wild against the Thunder this year: 26.5 points, 13 rebounds per game on 58% shooting. Randolph also snagged five offensive rebounds per game against OKC and shot 80% on free throws, and is coming off a series in which he made numerous big plays and improbable shots.
As previously noted, though, most of said dominance came against Jeff Green, who will spend the second round trying to slow down LeBron James and Dwyane Wade about 1,500 miles away. In Green’s place at power forward is Ibaka, who has the long arms and quick feet necessary to stay with Randolph. Z-Bo is playing at a high enough level that it’s a safe bet he’ll still get his points, but if Ibaka can make him work for them, Memphis may not have enough auxiliary offense to make up the difference.
James Harden - Put up good offensive numbers against Memphis this season (13.8 points in only 24.8 minutes per game, on 56% field goal shooting and 67% from the arc). He’ll likely close games in Thabo Sefalosha’s place, and he’ll need to hit big shots when Memphis’ swarming defense forces Durant or Westbrook to give up the ball.
Sefalosha/Eric Maynor – An offensive disaster against the Grizzlies in the season series. They’ll need to hit enough shots to take pressure off the big guns.
For Thunder fans, the biggest reasons for optimism:
Memphis outside shooting - In Oklahoma City’s one victory this season, they held the Grizzlies to 1-15 on three-pointers. If they can keep Memphis to that level of marksmanship, the Randolph/Gasol combo probably can’t pull off four wins on strictly inside production. Only Shane Battier and O.J. Mayo are shooting well from the arc in the playoffs, and the Thunder have the defensive schemes and players necessary to cut off the long ball.
The “New” Thunder – As previously stated, all four games in the regular season took place without the Thunder sporting their current lineup. If the upgrade from an Ibaka-Durant-Green front line to Perkins-Ibaka-Durant is significant enough, none of these clubs’ previous four meetings will be relevant.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.