An axiom that has been getting some serious play over the last month and change is that a Playoff series is not a Playoff series until the road team wins. Let me give you another one, and see what you think. The Playoffs aren’t the Playoffs until we get a game seven. So to that end, the 2011 Playoffs will officially begin this afternoon in Oklahoma City, when the eighth seeded Memphis Grizzlies take on the number four seed OKC Thunder.
If the previous six games in this series have taught us anything, it’s that both of these teams are capable of winning an important game, that both teams can score and defend but maybe not do both at the same time, and that this game seven is going to be a slobberknocker.
Memphis plays inside out, relying on their Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to carry the heavy lifting on offense, and have gotten some timely jump shooting from wing players like O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley, and Shane Battier. The Grizz anchor their defense with the strong and athletic play of Tony Allen, and have been able to maintain their improbably deep run with the help of some unlikely contributions; the steady play of rookie back-up PG Greivis Vasquez and some decent minutes from behemoth big Hamed Haddadi.
Memphis stole game one in OKC, but squandered their chance to close the series at home when they ran out of gas in game four’s third overtime, falling on their home court 133-123 in probably the second best game of these Playoffs so far—the best game of course being Portland’s return from the dead in game four of their first round series. If Memphis wants to book their ticket to the Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, they’re going to have to find a way to do it in a very hostile environment.
As for their opponents. The Thunder’s unquestioned leader is Kevin Durant, or at least unquestioned as far as 99.99% of the population is concerned. That .01% of the greater population is Russell Westbrook. Not a traditional usurper, Westbrook has the advantages of handling the ball a lot more than his backcourt running mate. Russ came under considerable heat following seven turnovers in both games one and three, OKC losses, and has made himself the center of attention, both good and bad, for this Thunder team.
When Westbrook is at his best, attacking the rim to score a layup, draw a foul, or kick the ball to an open teammate, Oklahoma City has the distinct talent advantage over Memphis. When Westbrook is at his worst, taking on five guys by himself, not passing to KD for four straight possessions, taking ill-advised jumpers, OKC is vulnerable.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the drivers of Oklahoma City’s offense in much the same way that Z Bo and the last Gasol standing are for Memphis. These teams live and die by the efforts of these four players. But role players may win this game, and this series. In that category, I would give Oklahoma City the advantage. The bigs off the bench for the Thunder, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed, and have the ability to be more consistent than Haddadi, and James Harden and Eric Maynor have emerged as potentially the best back-up one-two left in the Playoffs. Harden and Maynor are young, though, and can still be overcome by the situation.
Memphis has less of an offensive bench, but can still get big numbers from O.J. Mayo, Darrell Arthur, and Battier. For Memphis, more than for OKC, it’s going to come down to clutch execution by the starters, specifically Randolph, Gasol, and Conley.
Game four was a good example of the best and worst of a player like Mike Conley. With one long heave, Conley tied the game at the end of regulation 96-96. In the first overtime period, Conley, from the same distance, 26 feet, missed with 23 seconds remaining, and the Grizzlies needing only two points to take the lead. Conley fouled out, following the miss, and would have been the goat for the game had Greivis Vasquez not bailed him out with a hail Mary three to send the game into its penultimate overtime. More of the former Conley than the later, in so far as making plays and not doing stupid things, is what Memphis is going to need to beat the Thunder for a fourth time in seven tries.
There is more than one big game Sunday. The Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls tip off to start the Eastern Conference Finals following OKC/Memphis. This is certainly going to be billed as one of the best series of the Playoffs, in no small part because of Miami’s relatively easy dispatch of former conference champions the Boston Celtics and of the struggles the number one overall seed Chicago Bulls have had first with the Indiana Pacers and then with the Atlanta Hawks.
Chicago is led by MVP Derrick Rose, and hangs its hat on team defense and the scrappy play of guys like Joakim Noah and Keith Bogans. Miami has LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, and has begun to hit its stride as they’ve made their way through the first two rounds of the Playoffs.
This series will likely come down to whether or not Chicago can consistently stop both Lebron and Wade, although it stands to reason that it’s more likely that the Bulls can stop one and limit the other instead of overextending themselves attempting to nullifying both of the Big Two. Beyond Wade and James, Miami has very very little. Mike Bibby has been historically ineffective, none of the Heat’s secondary scorers have been consistent, their bench is paltry at best. The question is, can Chicago make that matter. Philly couldn’t in the first round, Boston couldn’t in the second.
For the Bulls, it will be all Derrick Rose all the time. They’ve rode him this far, and there’s no doubt they’ll stick with what’s been working. Rose is a menace to defend, he’s fast and smart, and can shoot just well enough to make defenders have to respect the J. If he can help Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer to get theirs consistently, and can get some timely shooting from Kyle Korver, this series could go in Chicago’s favor. It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.
More than the play of any individual on either team, this series is going to be about narrative. The type of narrative that the NBA execs are no doubt salivating over. Gone is the potential for a Kobe vs. Lebron final for yet another season, but this matchup of stories is just as good. Derrick Rose is possibly the feel good story of the decade, not to mention the fact that the last time the Chicago Bulls made it this deep in the Playoffs they were led by a guy named Michael Jordan. The Heat are the Heat. The Decision was made for this reason and this reason alone. Lebron James has made himself the target of derision because he wants to win. If he wins it all, will he be forgiven? Does it matter?
Lebron James has been beyond this round only once. That time it was unexpected, and he was swept in the Finals. He’s shown that he can make big shots and exorcise some demons in the process. Missing the Finals is not an option for James right now. It’s his series to lose.
Prediction: Miami in 6