The Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies waged an epic Western Conference Semifinals a year and a half ago, treating fans to the only seven-game series of the epic 2011 NBA Playoffs.
Each team came into Wednesday night’s matchup minus a former bearded swingman standout (James Harden for the Thunder, O.J. Mayo for Memphis) but otherwise with most of the pieces from that 2011 showdown intact.
For Thunder fans wishing to take their team’s early-season temperature, it will be instructive to examine the issues that plagued them against Memphis two seasons ago. How did the Thunder fare in each problem area now?
Zach Randolph’s Low-Post Destruction
Randolph is no longer the same beast who may have been the third-best player (behind Dirk and LeBron) in the 2011 postseason, and it showed in his inability to feast on Ibaka the way he had in previous years. Z-Bo has smartly adjusted his game, though, turning his focus to the offensive boards, where he repeatedly got his team extra possessions simply through wise positioning and reading the ball off the glass.
Failing to Take Care of the Ball
The first-half lowlight was Westbrook’s attempt to split a double-team that turned into a Rudy Gay alley-oop dunk after Marc Gasol scooped up Russell’s errant dribble. The second half saw no improvement, as 15 eventual turnovers led to 16 Grizzly points.
This meeting of the turnover-prone Thunder against the team that’s forced more miscues than any other over the past two seasons was probably doomed from the start, but some forced decisions from OKC’s youngsters helped along the inevitable outcome.
Not Enough Westbrook-Durant Balance
This issue, which rose to national prominence back in 2011, reared its head in a different way Wednesday, as Westbrook couldn’t buy a basket but mostly made up for it with creative playmaking. He threw two passes to Durant for layups, one on a fastbreak and one in a halfcourt set, that recalled some of the game’s greatest passers.
Durant had his own struggles against Memphis’s creative defensive schemes. In years past he’s drawn justified criticism for his inability to get open against physical defenders. He’s improved somewhat in that area, but the Grizzlies have the right armada of long-armed perimeter defenders to contest every offensive move.
The All-Star duo sank into enough of an offensive funk to head into halftime trailing 56-45. They came out with greater focus in the third quarter, but Memphis’s ability to follow Durant around picks forced him to become more of a facilitator, leading to the questionable prospect of Serge Ibaka’s high-post catch-and-shoot becoming OKC’s first option.
Neither Durant nor Westbrook ever found enough of a rhythm to carry the Thunder offense, and Kevin Martin (1-4 field goals, 7 points) found his Kryptonite against the swarming Memphis defense.
Getting Killed by Unheralded Memphis Bench Player
“Hello, Quincy Pondexter. Would you like to keep shooting open corner threes? We were pining for the days of Greivis Vasquez carving us up off the bench.” – Imagined collective thoughts of several Thunder players.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.