May 15, 2011 Leave a Comment
After splitting their first six games, it appears the Thunder and Grizzlies will be heading for a heated Game Seven showdown in Oklahoma City on Sunday afternoon. In what has easily been the most exciting series so far in this year’s playoffs, there is no doubt that the final match up between these two teams will be nothing short of a dog fight.
The Thunder, who boast All-NBA first team forward, Kevin Durant, and All-NBA second team guard, Russell Westbrook, have been highly touted since the start of the season. After their coming out party in the first round against the Lakers in last year’s first round, it was expected that the Thunder would stand a chance as contenders this season, despite their youthful core. With the addition of Kendrick Perkins from Boston, as well as the emergence of wing man, James Harden, and the incredibly athletic Serge Ibaka, the Thunder haven’t dissapointed in this postseason. With their added toughness, they have proven to be a very talented two-way team that can compete in practically any style of play.
Seeing as the Thunder have a loaded squad that is disciplined and well coached, it comes as a surprise that a mere eighth seed could cause them so much trouble. The Grizzlies, however, are no ordinary eighth seed, as they seem to have an even greater determination than the 2007 Warriors squad that managed to knock off a 67-win Dallas Mavericks team in the first round. When Rudy Gay was lost for the season back in February, many assumed the Grizzlies would roll over and submit their playoff spot to a team like the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz or Phoenix Suns. Fortunately for Grizz Nation, the Grizzlies made a shrewd trade-deadline deal that reinvigorated their franchise.
Memphis traded little used center, Hasheem Thabeet, whom they had taken number two overall in the 2009 draft, ahead of the likes of Stephen Curry and local product, Tyreke Evans, in exchange for the consumate team player, Shane Battier. While Battier’s addition may not seem all that significant on paper, the attitude and effort he has brought to the Grizzlies has changed the franchise’s fortune. Not only did Battier hit the game-winning three of the Grizzlies first-ever playoff win, but he united a locker room that was in turmoil after a mid-season altercation which led to O.J. Mayo getting his butt kicked by Tony Allen, followed by Mayo serving a 15-game suspension for the use of a banned substance. O.J. Mayo had gone from a 20-point scorer last season, to a bench player who looked lost. With the all-for-one approach Battier brought to the team, Mayo and Allen learned to co-exist, as they found a way to incorporate Allen’s impressive defensive abilities, with Mayo’s sharp offensive game, flawlessly into their system.
Not enough can be said, however, about the step forward taken by forward Zach Randolph. Once known as a black hole, who would not even consider passing the ball once he received it in the post, Randolph has become an unstoppable big man who is propelling his team to a deep playoff run. Throughout Randolph’s career, he has been viewed as a player whose talent was not worth the trouble, as the Blazers, Knicks and the Clippers all traded him away for pennies on the dollar. That is a mistake for which all three squads are surely kicking themselves, as Randolph has finally matured into a player far superior to what even the most optimistic scout may have predicted. It is obvious from his play that in the past two years, a fire has been lit inside of Randolph that has turned him into a far greater competitor, who focuses on winning more than personal success. It can be seen from his determination on the glass on both ends of the floor, that Randolph “wants it” far more than he ever has, and possibly more than any power forward not named Kevin Garnett.
Many have claimed that the Spurs “played like crap” in the first round, as an excuse for why the Spurs fell to an eighth seed, however, any who make such claims clearly were not watching the same games that I did. This Grizzly team has pulled a remarkable feat, as many players on its roster have matured drastically with both their skills on the court, and their attitude. Their increased cohesiveness and commitment to executing as a team on both ends of the floor, have made them an unlikely challenger for this season’s NBA title.
While the Grizzlies may not ultimately prove worthy of the title this season, I think they stand a good chance to win Game Seven in Oklahoma City. The Thunder have a very talented group, that shares a close bond, similar to the Boston Celtics, however, they don’t seem to have the same sort of will power the Grizzlies have displayed in the past two months. One thing is certain, this Game Seven should be an instant classic.