NBA playoffs: Grizzlies-Thunder preview

Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies were 1-3 this season against the Thunder, wiith their only win coming at home in January.

MEMPHIS — Adjusting to Dave Joerger and an array of injuries had Memphis aiming for the eighth seed since the All-Star break. Marc Gasol missed 23 games, Tony Allen 21, Mike Conley a week, Quincy Pondexter was done a week into December.

Memphis was the last team in the NBA to clinch a playoff spot, with Monday’s win at Phoenix, the fourth of five straight wins. Wednesday’s fifth came in a 106-105 overtime win against the Mavericks to clinch the seventh seed and set up a first-round playoff series at Oklahoma City, instead of to top-seeded San Antonio. Memphis beat the Thunder in five games last season to make the Western Conference Finals.

Series Schedule

Game 1 – Sat April 19, Memphis at Oklahoma City, 9:30 p.m.
Game 2 – Mon April 21, Memphis at Oklahoma City, 8 p.m.
Game 3 – Thu April 24, Oklahoma City at Memphis, 8 p.m.
Game 4 – Sat April 26, Oklahoma City at Memphis, 9:30 p.m.
Game 5 * Tue April 29, Memphis at Oklahoma City, TBD
Game 6 * Thu May 1, Oklahoma City at Memphis, TBD
Game 7 * Sat May 3, Memphis at Oklahoma City, TBD

Players to Watch

Zach Randolph, Memphis: Memphis’ old-school workhorse, Randolph is shooting 58 percent over the last five games and averaging 10 rebounds. His 47 double-doubles is fourth in the NBA. Randolph was the one dependable constant on a team ravaged by newness and injuries. It won’t be his first run-in with Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins (see: Nov. 2012 confrontation that cost Z-Bo $25,000). Memphis went to Randolph with the game — and the Spurs — on the line on Wednesday. He came through with 27 points and 14 boards, nine on the offensive glass.

Marc Gasol, Memphis: The other head of the two-headed monster, Gasol is every bit as grit and grind as Randolph and is one of the NBA’s top passing bigs. Wednesday he had 19 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. Since he returned from a Grade 2 MCL sprain, Memphis is 32-13 and it’s no coincidence. The anchor on the interior defense, Gasol is averaging 14.5 points and 7.9 rebounds, but is also second in the league among centers with 3.6 assists per game. Only Chicago’s Joakim Noah averages more.

Mike Conley, Memphis: Conley has steadily and quietly etched his way into the NBA’s list of top-flight point guards. The Grizzlies ask him to be aggressive and his game has blossomed as he had to assume new responsibilities with Memphis’ plethora of injuries. Conley leads the team in scoring at 17.1 per game, a career high. His 20.10 PER is seventh in the league among point guards.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City: Westbrook missed last year’s series. In two games against Memphis this season, he averaged 24 points and 7.5 assists.

“They’re a completely different team with Russell Westbrook than the team that we saw last year in the playoffs,” said Joerger. “It’s going to be which style of play is more forceful.”

Barring any more injuries, either Memphis’ naysayers will see their point proven or Grizzlies fans will be able to say, “Told you so.”

Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City: A lot of those Westbrook assists have gone to Durant, who may accept an MVP trophy before one of these games. Durant is averaging 39.1 points and 7.4 rebounds. In four games against Memphis, he averaged 30.8 points and six rebounds In OKC’s only loss in the four games, Durant had 37 points.

Steven Adams, Oklahoma City: Perkins and Serge Ibaka take the headlines, but Adams only plays more minutes against Chicago than he does against Memphis. The 7-foot center also averages above his season totals with 4.5 points and six rebounds against the Grizzlies. His defensive help against Gasol and Randolph will be key.

Key Matchup: Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins vs. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol

Kevin Durant will get what Kevin Durant gets. The Grizzlies will have to keep a close eye on Westbrook. But what happens in the paint will go a long way in determining how long this series goes, especially for Memphis.

The Grizzlies, while they have added more shooting than the team that got them to last season’s Western Conference Finals, are still an inside-out team.

In three games against the Thunder, Gasol has averaged 14 points and only 3.3 rebounds, both below his season averages. Randolph averages 16.5 points and 11 rebounds.

Perkins has played in three games against the Grizzlies this season and averaged only a point and 4.7 rebounds. Ibaka is at 15 points and 9.3 rebounds, right on his season marks.

Memphis’ strength is still inside. So the winner of this series may depend on who gets going, Gasol or Perkins.

“We have to try to get our big guys going,” said Conley. “If we’re going to be successful, they have to be playing well.”

Conley said “they.” Gasol and Randolph will carry the Grizzlies as far as they’ll go, again.

X-Factor: Mike Miller

When Miller made his triumphant return to Memphis — to a public press conference — no one thought he would play in all 82 regular season games. His 24 minutes Wednesday made that happen.

Miller brought much needed outside shooting to the Grizzlies, who ranked 25th last season in 3-point percentage. The Grizzlies shoot .355 from deep, up only from .345, but it’s been noticeable of late. Miller thrives on this stage.

He had only three points on 1-of-5 shooting Wednesday — that was a go-ahead shot late in the fourth quarter — but in the three games leading up, Miller was shooting 72 percent and had made 11-of-13 3-pointers.

It’s not his first rodeo. In last season’s finals with the Heat, Miller hit 10-of-10 from long range over three of the games, .611 in the seven-game series win.

“These are the moments that we were hoping to see him playing his best.,” said Joerger. “The way he’s come back from the All-Star break and been aggressive looking for his shot, absolutely it’s picked us up the last three games.”

Only four playoff teams, the Pacers, Clippers, Bobcats and Bulls, shoot worse from beyond the arc than Memphis. But the Grizzlies are in the playoffs thanks in large part to Miller’s love for the late-season spotlight.

“When offense has gotten slow, making shots and our belief that we can score and score with good scoring teams goes way up when he’s aggressive and making shots,” said Joerger.