The 2011 NBA Playoffs, for all their intrigue, haven’t produced a Game 7 yet. That all changes tomorrow, when the Memphis Grizzlies try to ruin the Oklahoma City Thunder’s shot at a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Each team has alternated admirable tenacity with stunningly poor stretches, epitomized by the epic triple-overtime Game 4 in which neither crew seemed capable of seizing control.
The Thunder appear to have lost momentum after Memphis’ convincing defense of its home court in Game 6. Here’s what to watch for as they try to fend off the fearsome Grizzlies.
Where is Zach Randolph getting the ball? Z-Bo’s numbers for the series aren’t as impressive as you’d think: he’s played three exceptional games (1, 3 and 6) while shooting 40% from the field. (His raw numbers looked good in Game 4, but he shot 9-25 from the field and wore down by the end.)
His outstanding efforts have come when he gets the ball against single coverage at the right block, or in the middle of the paint where he can quickly attack the basket. If Nick Collison can shove him from those spots more successfully than he did in Game 6, Randolph may revert to the plodding mess he was the previous game.
The tricky part of defending Randolph in these situations is that his distance from the hoop doesn’t matter; he’s equally effective facing up from 17 feet as he is bulling his way to the hoop. Collison, who has drawn much of the one-on-one defensive responsibility after Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins proved inadequate, needs to keep his quick hands and feet moving to prevent Randolph from getting comfortable.
Where is Kevin Durant getting the ball? The journalists and media folks who pilloried Russell Westbrook for shooting too much have started to shift the blame in Durant’s direction. Too many times this series, Durant has allowed Tony Allen and Shane Battier’s physical brand of defense to bottle him up and prevent him from catching the ball within 30 feet of the basket. This was the largest contributing factor in his career playoff-worst 11-point, 3-14 shooting nightmare in Game 6. If he can’t get the ball in a more convenient place, his season is over.
How much contact will be allowed? Game 6 in particular continued a series-long trend in which much of the off-ball and on-ball contact was ignored by officials. This has tended to favor the Grizzlies, who feature less finesse in their offense, especially Randolph, who seems unbothered by extracurricular bumps and shoves during his shots. The let-them-play mentality, coupled with some untimely offensive foul calls against the Thunder, has seemed to send Durant and Westbrook into occasional funks.
Both Westbrook and James Harden have found a way to turn officiating to their advantage, though, by repeatedly attacking the hoop and wearing out the Grizzlies on defense. If they can continue to fight through the contact, they can serve as catalysts the way they did in all three Thunder wins thus far.
Can either team hold a lead? Only in Games 1 and 5 has the team that jumped to an early lead actually managed to hold it; every other game thus far has featured double-digit comebacks. The team that emerges will likely be the one that holds its focus best, mistrusting early success in favor of late-game execution.
What about that small lineup? Shifting Durant to power forward while flanking him with three guards helped the Thunder crawl out of a 16-point hole in Game 4 and got them a 10-point halftime lead in Game 6. Coach Scott Brooks has used that look sparingly otherwise, but might need to revisit it in light of its ability to exploit certain holes in Memphis’ otherwise stingy defense.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.