Playoff roundtable: What storyline will ultimately decide Thunder-Grizzlies?
SI.com’s NBA writers debate the biggest playoff question of the day. Today, we examine …
What will be the key or storyline that decides the Grizzlies-Thunder series (Memphis currently leads 2-1)?
Lee Jenkins: The storylines will focus on Kevin Durant (does a true MVP bow out in the first round?) and Russell Westbrook (will he create for his teammates or only himself?). But Durant and Westbrook are not the problem for Oklahoma City. They will bounce back and post big numbers, no matter how difficult Tony Allen makes it. The key to this series are the Memphis wings, virtually ignored by the Thunder defense, which is wisely focused on Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. In Game 1, Memphis could not find any complementary scoring, and lost. In Game 2, they got 16 from Courtney Lee and 14 from Beno Udrih, and won. In Game 3, they got 16 from Allen, 12 from Udrih and 10 from Lee, and won again. Oklahoma City’s offense is always going to be tilted dramatically toward Durant and Westbrook. The Grizzlies should be the more balanced team if their role players can continue to exploit an uneven defense.
Ben Golliver: After suffering two straight losses that were essentially mirror images of each other, Thunder coach Scott Brooks needs to adjust his team's offensive approach or risk an early exit that could lead some to call for his job. Oklahoma City's inability to get anything from its bench was documented by The Point Forward after Game 3, and that must be a priority for Brooks in Game 4. Rockets coach Kevin McHale struck gold by calling on Troy Daniels on Friday night against the Blazers. Might Brooks consider a similar play by giving Jeremy Lamb his first real taste of postseason action? If not, can he find ways to help Reggie Jackson succeed? Can he make life easier for Derek Fisher and Caron Butler? The burden of scoring against the Grizzlies simply must be spread out more evenly than it was in Game 3, when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook took all of Oklahoma City's shots for an 11-minute stretch during the fourth quarter and overtime.
Rob Mahoney: The key the rest of the way: Oklahoma's ability to get something -- anything -- out of its role players. The natural lulls of the Thunder offense have been stretched to their fullest by the Grizzlies' D, though even that doesn't fully explain OKC's utterly vacant bench play. While ranking fourth on the team in field goal attempts, the typically competent Reggie Jackson is shooting 16 percent -- SIXTEEN PERCENT -- from the field. Caron Butler, he of 4 points per game in 25 minutes, has made just a quarter of his shots in the series. Even the undying Derek Fisher has yet to make any kind of remotely positive impact thus far, as he's trapped beneath a depressed three-point percentage (25 percent) and assist average (0.7 per game).
As easy as it might be to fault Westbrook for overshooting or Durant for settling at times, neither star has had even vaguely dependable help in their efforts to break down one of the best defenses in the NBA. Faculty is a prerequisite for fluid offense, and for the moment OKC's supporting cast has little. If that changes, the Thunder could stave off early deficits and earn occasional room for error. If it doesn't, all the raw talent at the top of the roster might mean little in the series' final balance.
Matt Dollinger: With Kendrick Perkins and Zach Randolph agreeing to play nice, we know this series (disappointingly) won't be decided by a winner-take-all cage match. Instead, it will likely hinge on the jumpshot and decision-making of Russell Westbrook, who has been equal parts brilliant and infuriating this series, per usual. It feels strange to pin the Thunder's last two losses on a guy who averaged 29.5 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, but the star guard's penchant for trying to do too much is once again doing more harm than good. If it wasn't for Roy Hibbert's demise in the East, we'd all be focusing more on Westbrook's slide, which has seen him shoot 38.3 percent in the first round and 5-of-25 from three-point range. In a critical Game 4 in Memphis, the Thunder desperately needs Westbrook's shots to fall -- or they might doing the same. Stifling defense from the Grizzlies won't make anything easier.
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