The second round of the NBA playoffs starts on Sunday, and the Western Conference is pared down to conference semifinals of Oklahoma City-Memphis & San Antonio-Golden State. The former series starts tomorrow, the latter on Monday and here today we’ll preview both.
Even with Russell Westbrook on the sidelines, the Thunder are still playing a perimeter-oriented game of basketball. OkC won a run-and-gun three-point shooting contest with Houston to get to this round, and that stands in sharp contrast to the physical inside play of Memphis that eventually broke the back of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Oklahoma City is going to have a challenge on its hands if they want to keep the three-point style going. Memphis defends the trey as well as anyone in the league—come to think of it, the Grizzlies defend the entire basketball court as well as anyone in the league and that Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol interior combo excels at picking up the mess. OkC is going to need a strong series from Kevin Martin, and they need athletic defender Thab Sefolosha to force turnovers and create easy transition baskets.
When Westbrook was injured, I implored Oklahoma City to go inside to Serge Ibaka with greater frequency. In general, that’s still what I believe, but such an approach needs to be on hold for this series. OkC can’t allow Memphis to settle into a post-oriented, grinding series, because Randolph and Gasol will win that battle. It’s imperative that the Thunder guards—including Reggie Jackson, who’s getting increased minutes after the injury—not just win their battle with Mike Conley and the Memphis guards, but they need to dominate it, particularly on the defensive end.
Finally let’s come to Kevin Durant. This is his big moment, a chance to lift his team through the brutal Western Conference playoffs without his sidekick. Durant averaged 33 ppg in the Houston series and did it while shooting 49 percent from the floor. The one thing he didn’t do well was shoot the three-ball, at 29 percent. He’ll either need to hit the trey in this series or do his damage inside against an inside game much better than what the Rockets could offer. I’m betting on Durant, but it will take the full seven games for Oklahoma City to survive.
SAN ANTONIO-GOLDEN STATE
The Spurs-Warriors is another series that has a perimeter vs. post contrast, although it’s not quite as pronounced as in the Thunder-Grizzlies matchup. Golden State is going to try and play a rapid tempo and certainly unafraid to shoot the three off the break. San Antonio would be better served if they can play a more deliberate pace and allow the veteran Tim Duncan to control the inside.
This contrast is mitigated on both sides though. The Spurs don’t have to fear the transition game. They played at a good pace all season and Tony Parker leads a team that can get its share of easy baskets. On the flip side, Golden State got a strong showing from center Andrew Bogut in their first-round win over Denver, as Bogut averaged 10 rebounds a game. And in a most unexpected development, David Lee made an appearance in Game 6 of that series, and is listed as questionable for Monday. The power forward was supposed to be lost for the postseason after a hip flexor injury, but the miracles of modern medicine seem to know no bounds.
It’s the San Antonio defense going against the red-hot Steph Curry that gives this series its real intrigue. Curry averaged 24 ppg against Denver and hit 44 percent from three-point range while attempting eight shots a game behind the arc. But this Spurs team has played excellent defense all year long, raking in the top five in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
Furthermore, Curry was slowed in the final two games of the Denver series when George Karl went to a more physical lineup, something he was repeatedly implored to on this site’s NBA commentary as the series unfolded. I suspect Greg Popovich won’t take quite as long to figure it out, and Curry will need to get some help from his mates. The most help in these playoffs has come from 20-year-old rookie Harrison Barnes, who averaged 15 ppg in the Denver series and hit 40 percent from behind the arc.
San Antonio is well-rested, having swept the Los Angeles Lakers out of the playoffs and never being tested in any individual game. Parker and Duncan have shown all year they still have it, this team has a long bench of players who know their roles and it’s all orchestrated by the best head coach in the business. I’m looking forward to this series, but have no doubt about who to pick. Spurs in six.
FULL DISCLOSURE: When it comes to my picks, I only went 2-2 in the West for the first round, and I don’t know how many people are ready to give to much credit for having OkC and San Antonio advance. Even there, I thought the Lakers would stretch the series out. Not a good start.