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May 16, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Four Aces

by Kevin Pelton

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at Oklahoma City 105, Memphis 90 (Oklahoma City wins 4-3)
Pace: 84.7
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 127.0, Memphis 103.8

Game Seven belonged to a group of four Oklahoma City Thunder players: stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, yes, but also reserves Nick Collison and James Harden. The four of them were on the floor for a total of 21 minutes and 28 seconds during Sunday's deciding game against the Memphis Grizzlies, mostly accompanied by Kendrick Perkins. During that span, the Thunder completely dominated, outscoring Memphis by an incredible 58-32 margin. Extrapolate that to a full 48 minutes and Oklahoma City's best lineup would have won a game against the Grizzlies 130-72.

When the two starting lineups were on the floor, Memphis had an advantage, and when both teams went to their second units - Scott Brooks playing his reserves five at a time, as has become custom - the game was relatively even. In those scenarios, the Thunder was simply too limited in terms of scoring options. As soon as Harden joined Durant and Westbrook, the offense became balanced, while Collison's heady play was invaluable at both ends of the court. That's a championship-caliber core of players.

Sunday was basically the kind of performance by Harden Oklahoma City envisioned when making him the No. 3 overall pick of the 2009 draft (a pick after the Grizzlies took Hasheem Thabeet, who presumably watched the game from his couch). Harden was a playmaker, a finisher and a shotmaker at different times in the game, going off for 17 points, four steals and three assists. That line doesn't reflect Harden's multiple dagger three-pointers. Fellow reserve Collison anchored a defensive effort that held Zach Randolph to 6-of-15 shooting with relatively little double-team help. Collison also pulled down 12 boards, blocked three shots and made three of his four shot attempts for good measure. It's hard to imagine a role player having a much better series than Collison did.

Durant was simply dominant. He took a couple bad shots in the early moments as the Thunder sought to forcefeed him after his miserable Game Six, but Durant worked through it. Scott Brooks worked to get him the ball in better spots on the floor, and the combination of superior off-ball action (including some backdoor plays designed to take advantage of Tony Allen's aggressive denial defense) and a pass-first mentality from Westbrook helped get Durant going. By the second half, he was hitting everything, including four of his nine three-point attempts. Durant scored 39 points on 29 shooting possessions, phenomenal efficiency.

For Westbrook, it was the kind of game that both silenced his critics by virtue of his triple-double and encouraged him that this is the way Westbrook should play all the time. Reality lies somewhere in between. The rest of the Oklahoma City offense, including Durant, made Westbrook's job much easier. At the same time, it's impossible to deny that he was looking for teammates more than usual with excellent results. To the extent Westbrook can maintain that mindset, it will help the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

As for the Grizzlies, they simply did not have enough scoring punch. In the last five games of the series, Memphis never scored at a rate better than league average. The Grizzlies still won two of those games on the strength of their defense, but any time the Thunder scored efficiently, it meant doom.

With Oklahoma City making Randolph and Marc Gasol work in the post, responsibility for creating offense shifted to Memphis' weak perimeter group. This was a game, and for that matter a series, where the Grizzlies badly missed the creativity of Rudy Gay. O.J. Mayo had his moments, but Mike Conley was forced into a role that asked him to shoot too much. He finished the game 7-of-19 from the field and shot 27.1 percent combined over the last four games of the series. Conley needs to be in a role that asks him to set up plays, not finish them.

The playoffs have a way of exposing weaknesses, and a Memphis second unit that had been playing well down the stretch came up short in the postseason. Gay's return will help the Grizzlies by pushing Sam Young into a more appropriate reserve role alongside Mayo (should the latter return), but Memphis must improve its depth at point guard and center. That could come internally through the development of Greivis Vasquez and Hamed Haddadi, but might require a move or two in free agency.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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