Memphis dodged a matchup with the San Antonio Spurs thanks to win over Dallas in their 82nd and final game of the regular season, but the matchup with the Thunder isn’t all that much better. A consolation prize of facing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is little consolation at all.
Memphis drives its offense off of two main actions – the high/low work of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and Mike Conley-led pick and rolls. When Gasol and Randolph are at work, they will often post Randolph while Gasol sets up shop at the left elbow. From there he can use his high skill level to torment opponents by seeking out cutters or popping a jumper. Randolph can still batter opponents in the post, and he and Gasol can switch spots when Gasol posts up – Randolph prefers the baselines a bit more, but he’s converting over 40% of his attempts beyond 10 feet.
When not running the high-low game, Memphis leans on the brilliant pick and roll play of Conley. He likes to team with Gasol, making them a very tough duo to defend due to both being strong shooters and passers.
In past seasons teams have been able to brazenly help off the wings to suffocate both of these actions, but the addition of Courtney Lee in a trade with Boston this season has provided a little breathing room. He’s not exactly Ray Allen, but he certainly commands more respect than Tony Allen or Tayshaun Prince. All of this has added up to a league average offensive rating on the year for Memphis. This undersells the quality of the offense given the number of games missed by key players and that Lee only joined the team midseason.
Memphis may be playing respectable offense at the moment, but the types of teams that have caused the Thunder’s top-5 defense trouble have been free-wheeling pass and shoot squads. The grit-and-grind Grizzlies play into the OKC personnel too much. Kendrick Perkins will find usefulness against Gasol and Randolph, while Serge Ibaka can hang relatively close to the rim where he’s most deadly. On the perimeter Westbrook has the athleticism to stick with Conley and Durant will be free to use his length to disrupt passing lanes while helping off of Prince.
The loss of Nick Calathes to suspension will create some big issues for the Griz when Conley is taking a breather, but that impact can be lessened with the increased minutes load the starters will be getting relative to the regular season.
When the Thunder have the ball they naturally lean on the prowess of Durant and Westbrook to guide them. Memphis still managed a top-10 defense this season while adjusting to a new coach and missing Gasol for a chunk of the season, but good luck stopping Durant. Tony Allen has caused him problems in the past by doggedly denying him the ball, but Allen’s role has been lessened as Memphis has sought more floor spacing.
Coach Dave Joerger may want to consider starting Allen over Prince with Conley, Lee, Randolph, and Gasol. This lineup has seen about 67 minutes on the season and have played well together, so it may be something to watch. In general Memphis has more depth and lineup options than in previous years, having gotten solid contributions from subs Mike Miller, Ed Davis, and Kosta Koufos.
The Thunder bench also offers some intriguing pieces, among them plus-minus god Nick Collison and speedy scorer Reggie Jackson. Old-timer Derek Fisher will see plenty of minutes as well to the confusion of many viewers.
If Memphis can bother Durant and manufacture enough space to allow Conley, Randolph, and Gasol to operate they will be able to take a game or two, but this is ultimately Oklahoma City’s series to lose.