The Oklahoma City Thunder were the second-best team in the NBA in 2013-14, ringing up a 59-23 record, and were considered one of the favorites to win the Western Conference based on their dominance over the No. 1 seed, the San Antonio Spurs.
But in order to beat the Spurs in the playoffs, the Thunder have to get there first and the Memphis Grizzlies are once again proving to be a significant roadblock.
This is the third time in four years the Thunder and Grizzlies have met in the playoffs. Oklahoma City survived a seven-game meat grinder with Memphis in the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals but lost in the conference semifinals last spring in five games.
Most wrote off last season’s loss to the absence of Russell Westbrook, who missed the series after injuring his knee in Game 2 of the first round against the Houston Rockets.
But the Grizzlies, after getting demolished in Game 1 in a 100-86 Thunder win that was not as close as the score indicated, have bounced back to take Games 2 and 3 in overtime.
Memphis has shown remarkable resilience, blowing double-digit leads in the late going in both games before regrouping to win in overtime.
The mental toughness to overcome a couple of miracle four-point plays—one by Kevin Durant late in regulation of Game 2 and another by Westbrook late in Game 3—is admirable.
But part of the reason Memphis is looking at securing a 3-1 lead in the series tonight at the FedExForum is because the Thunder are literally playing right into the Grizzlies’ hands.
Durant and Westbrook are putting up crazy numbers in the series when observed in the raw. Durant is averaging 33 points a game in the series and Westbrook is putting up a double-double with 27.3 points and 10 rebounds.
But all is not as it seems, because Durant is shooting only 43.8 percent (35-for-80) and is 8-for-27 from 3-point range after an 0-for-8 in Game 3. Westbrook is even less efficient, hitting 38.4 percent (28-for-73) and he keep firing up 3-pointers despite making just 5-for-25 in the series.
Here are Durant and Westbrook’s numbers through the first three games of the series:
But here’s where the series is being lost. The role players for Oklahoma City, with the exception of Serge Ibaka, are simply not getting it done.
Durant and Westbrook have combined for 153 of Oklahoma City’s 256 shots in the series, nearly 60 percent. The rest of the roster is a combined 42-for-103 (40.8 percent). Take Ibaka’s 18-for-30 out of the mix and what’s left is a dismal 24-for-73 (32.9 percent). The shot chart for everyone on the Thunder not named Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka tells the horrific story:
Here are the rest of the Oklahoma City individual numbers for the series (and for goodness sake, think of the children before letting them see these):
It doesn’t matter who your two stars are … you’re not beating anyone in the playoffs if your role players can’t be counted on to make one out of three.
For the series, Oklahoma City is at 41 percent overall and just 24.3 percent from 3-point range.
Memphis is getting huge contributions, as expected, from point guard Mike Conley (18.3 points, 8.7 assists per game) and big men Zach Randolph (20.7 points, nine rebounds per game) and Marc Gasol (15.3 points, seven rebounds a game).
Here’s where the series is being won, however. The Grizzlies have three other players who are producing huge results—and one of them isn’t playoff veteran Mike Miller.
Tony Allen is averaging 33 minutes a game off the bench and is doing a number on Durant defensively, holding him to an effective field goal percentage of .455 when he’s on the court, as opposed to .560 when Allen is on the bench, according to the SportsVu stats at NBA.com.
But Allen is also scoring 12.3 points and getting 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 points a game. Courtney Lee is averaging 11.3 points on 54 percent shooting.
The true X-factor, though, has been backup point guard Beno Udrih. Udrih played just 55 minutes in 10 games for the Grizzlies after Memphis signed the 31-year-old Slovenian after he was cut by the New York Knicks.
But when Nick Calathes was suspended for 20 games for violating the NBA’s performance-enhancing drug policy, Udrih was suddenly the primary backup to Conley.
And he’s been a revelation for the Grizzlies.
In 14.3 minutes per game, the slashing and dashing Udrih is 12-for-18 from the floor and has scored 29 points in three games, including 14 in Game 2 and 12 in Game 3. If you look at Udrih’s shot chart, he’s doing most of his damage in the paint. The Oklahoma City second unit—primarily Derek Fisher—can’t handle Udrih off the dribble and he’s basically getting whatever he wants.
The Grizzlies have a 2-1 lead in the series because for the last two games, Memphis’ role players are delivering and Oklahoma City’s aren’t.
Compounding the issue is that the less the Thunder role players do, the more Durant and Westbrook feel compelled to try and do.
And that over-dependence on two players against a team as good defensively as Memphis could be the ticket to a shockingly early exit from the 2014 NBA Playoffs.