Four questions for three writers, examining Saturday’s winner-take-all Game 7 between the Thunder and Grizzlies in Oklahoma City:
1. Even without Zach Randolph, how could the Grizzlies steal Game 7?
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - Slow the pace and dig in defensively. If the Grizzlies can control tempo and keep it from being a track meet, the Thunder could struggle to score. It’s been the key for Memphis all series. When the Grizzlies do that, and get some unexpected offensive contributions from someone not named Marc Gasol or Mike Conley, they’re in great shape.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) - To carry the offense, Memphis needs Mike Miller to pretend like it’s a Game 5 all over again. A barrage of long-range bombs can fill up the scoreboard quickly and alleviate pressure elsewhere. Then, they’re going to need to pray the Thunder reverts to its early-series play. Little ball movement, errant shots, spotty energy. Even without their All-Star forward, the Grizzlies are gritty enough to stick in this one. But to actually pull off an unlikely win, they’ll need career nights from role players and help from OKC.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - Heck, I don’t know. Without the suspended Zach Randolph, who knows? Let’s see. I guess if Mike Conley plays and plays well, and Mike Miller shoots it great, and Tony Allen plays 40 minutes of tough defense on Durant, and Russell Westbrook has a bad game, and Serge Ibaka gets in foul trouble, and the Thunder starts jacking up 3-pointers and finishes with less than five makes in more than 25 tries, I guess it could be interesting. But I don’t see how.
2. What’s the key for the Thunder to ensure a Game 7 win?
Mayberry - Defense and decision-making. Do those two things and the Thunder should cruise to another victory. Don’t do those things and Memphis has a chance to send OKC into a summer of misery. The Thunder’s defense, both on the perimeter and in the paint, must be consistent for 48 minutes. And the team’s playmakers, specifically Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, must again be smart on offense, early, often and especially late.
Slater - Replicate Game 6 from an energy and effort standpoint. The rest will take care of itself. Kevin Durant said it best at practice on Friday, calling the Thunder’s urgency in Game 6 “different”: “We came out and knew our backs were against the wall. So we have to play like that in Game 7. We can’t just do that after a loss, we have to do that after a W”. If they do, the talent disparity will shine through and the Thunder will move on.
Tramel - Continue to attack the basket. The Thunder didn’t settle for so many 3-pointers. They drove to the hoop and kept Memphis on the defensive. The inclusion of Caron Butler into the lineup helped, and Russell Westbrook played a marvelous floor game. Plus Durant seemed to play with renewed aggression.
3. Is Scott Brooks coaching for his job in Game 7?
Mayberry - I don’t think so. I think he’s safe. That’s not to say questions aren’t starting to be asked internally about his long-term viability. But the difficulty of this matchup, mixed with some of the bad breaks the Thunder caught and the organization’s slow and steady philosophy, tells me he’ll get at least another year.
Slater - Doubtful, but maybe Sam Presti should tell him that. Because Brooks sure seemed like a guy coaching on the hot seat on Thursday. He unleashed the kind of changes and adjustments fans and pundits have long clamored for, and it worked beautifully. He broke the routine, adapted to the series, changed the starting lineup and may have altered the Thunder’s season. Sometimes a desperate decision-maker is a good decision-maker.
Tramel - No. I don’t think he was in Game 6. I don’t believe the Thunder would make a coaching change based on a series of close games. I believe Scotty’s job is safe either way.
4. Who you got and why?
Mayberry - Thunder. Grizzlies blew it by not winning Game 6. With Zach Randolph now suspended for Game 7 and Mike Conley potentially playing on one leg, Memphis just doesn’t have enough horses to keep up.
Slater - I’m flip-flopping back to the Thunder. But how can you not? Even before Zach Randolph was suspended, OKC had forcefully regained momentum. Thursday night’s performance was dominant and eye-opening — a potentially signature moment in this postseason run, which looked like nearly over two days ago but now seems destined for a new episode on the California coast.
Tramel - Thunder. Always go with the home squad in Game 7. But beyond that, the Thunder has proven to be the better team. Six games, two blowouts (or close to it) won by OKC. Four overtime games, three won by Memphis.