Whether it be because of our inane propensity to jump to absolute conclusions the second anything happens, or just our insatiable need for instant reaction, we tend to overreact to the things that happen in game one of a series.
The seven game system is designed to be one that eliminates single game outliers and puts heavy emphasis on sustained trends and strategic adjustments and counter adjustments, and yet we cannot help ourselves from making sweeping proclamations crowning or damning teams based solely off one game. I am just as guilty as the rest, as it is sometimes difficult to mitigate your reaction and opinion of where the series will go when one game is all you have to consider.
So, in an effort to avoid that reactionary analysis, I am going to analyze these first four game ones of the second round in the context of what is likely to be a sustained trend throughout the series and what was merely a single game outlier. The caveat, as always with prognostication (even a cautious one such as this), is stuff happens and what I might consider to be an outlier may turn out to be quite the opposite and vice versa. With that in mind here are the outliers and trends for Grizzlies – Thunder.
- Derek Fisher playing like an average NBA player-
Since Fisher joined the Thunder half way through the regular season he went on a glorious campaign to be the single worst rotation player receiving consistent minutes in the NBA. He couldn’t shoot, pass, or show any semblance of an ability to play defense and even worse, he continued to play like nothing had changed in five years by highjacking the offense through terrible long twos and turning the ball over after numerous ill-advised passes. Scott Brooks’ trust in him has been one of his greatest vices as a coach and despite getting burned over and over again, Fisher continued to find himself inserted into the crunch time lineup.
However this trust is now paying inexplicable dividends as Fisher played perhaps his best game of the season yesterday for the simple fact that he stayed in his lane. His hot streak since the playoffs started continued (he is shooting 56 percent on nearly 4 threes a game) and his defense down the stretch was not only un-damaging it was actually useful. Safe to say I’m more then a little skeptical about this controlled performance from the king of the veteran leadership cult. His unsustainably hot shooting is most likely going to cost the Thunder down the road, because an overconfident Derek Fisher may be the worst type of player you want to be trusting down the stretch in a playoff game.
- Kevin Martin AKA James Harden 2.0-
What was amazing about Kevin Martin’s game one performance wasn’t his 25 points on 8 of 14 shooting, he has gone off for that many points before. It was how he got them. Martin is a spot up specialist and Memphis treated him as such, playing up on him constantly and always going under on the screen when guarding him (something Martin, ironically, has to be the worst in the league at when he is guarding good shooters). Martin burned this type of defense repeatedly by putting the ball on the floor and showing an off the dribble game that had rarely been seen this season.
Early into the second quarter, Martin made an off the bounce bank shot and-one that evoked James Harden flashbacks, as did his uncharacteristically high eight free throw attempts. This is a tough one to label as an “outlier” simply because this is a side we just haven’t seen from him in a Thunder uniform. While a James Harden-esque creator is much needed in this Westbrook-less Thunder offense, his poor performance sans Westbrook in the Houston series makes it difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt. What was reminiscent of his regular season tendencies, though, was his defense or lack there of as Jerryd Bayless burned him for going over the screen multiple times.
- Serge Ibaka doing this again-
Ibaka shot 1 for 10 from the field in an overall miserable day on offense, despite seeing some very open looks. Especially in pick and pops with Durant, Ibaka was left wide open and just could not nail the jump shot that he has worked extremely hard to improve all year. Ibaka’s jumper has gotten to the point of reliability that you can chalk up this type of performance as an outlier. The good news for the Thunder is that jump shot is going to be there all series, as Memphis’ bigs are sagging off on the screener. Game one goes from a nail-biter to a blowout very quickly if Ibaka had made the open jumpers he is likely to make for the rest of the series.
- Nick Collison can’t guard Zach Randolph-
Every NBA geek’s favorite plus/minus king had one of his worse games yesterday, and this mostly had to do with his inability to contain the raging bull that is Zach Randolph. Not only did Randolph bully him in the post, forcing someone to rotate over to help the moment he started backing Collison down, but he blew past him off the dribble on multiple occasions. Now if Zach Randolph is blowing past you, something has gone very, very wrong.
This may seem insignificant as Collison’s job is usually to waste away on the bench as Kendrick Perkins plays, drawing the cries of befuddled outrage from NBA bloggers everywhere. But his inability to guard Randolph means that when Memphis goes “small” with Randolph at center, the only time Durant can be theoretically moved back to his more effective spot at the four, OKC is at a disadvantage. In a series like this, how you matchup with the opposing teams variated lineup, be it bigger or smaller, could determine the outcome and the Thunder seemed to have already lost the one that might have given them the biggest advantage.
- Kevin Durant will remain good at basketball-
OKC’s biggest advantage over every team other then Miami is that it possesses the best player in any of those potential series. Not only that but Kevin Durant just also happens to be the second best player in the world. As I’ve mentioned before, the Thunder are playing a more isolation-heavy, Durant run offense since Westbrook went down and while it’s become a bit predictable (as all isolation heavy offenses eventually are), the fact that Durant is running it still makes it nearly impossible to stop.
The first three clips show how Durant finds the open man when Memphis sends the double-team (and sometimes even triple-team) at him and the next two show what happens when they let him clear out. Poor Tayshaun Prince. As seen with the furious comeback Durant orchestrated to ultimately win game one, despite how predictable the Thunder offense seems to be and despite how good a defense Memphis has, they’re going to need a lot more than that to stop Durant.
- Serge Ibaka, the Zach stopper-
The perception of Serge Ibaka as a defender has taken a bit of a hit over the last couple of years as the NBA blogosphere rebelled over him placing so high in the DPOY voting based solely on his block numbers. And while this is true, and he is probably overrated by the mass majority of NBA fans, it’s easy to forget how good he actually is.
His freakish athleticism makes him the perfect counterpart to Randolph’s bullish play style and matching him up on Zach has thus far been a big win for the Thunder. In the 29 minutes Ibaka and Randolph shared the court, Zach went 4 for 12 for 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 turnovers and an abysmal offensive rating (points per 100 possession when Randolph was on the court) of 83.8. When he is on the bench (and Collison is in his place) that offensive rating skyrockets to 119. As mentioned above, when you factor in that Randolph is going to have trouble guarding that Ibaka jump shot, this is one matchup that looks like its going to come out in OKC’s favor.
I came into this series with a toss up choice that ended up Thunder in 7 and nothing I’ve seen from this game has swayed me on that prediction yet. Memphis had control of the game for almost the complete way through and the last few minutes were just a hammering of un-gaurdable Durant PUJITs. However, the Grizzlies can come away knowing they completely dominated OKC on their home court and that the matchup advantage is in their favor.
Meanwhile, the Thunder escaped with a win despite playing rather poorly, and they have to think that Serge Ibaka is not going to turn in another offensive performance like that. This series looks like a very close, very long one and after some of the torturous things we suffered through in the East last round, this is some refreshingly fun stuff.