The Oklahoma City Thunder were able to make it past the Houston Rockets despite losing Russell Westbrook to what has been reported as a season-ending injury (David Lee ruined my trust). But there are two asterisks here. Westbrook played in the first two games of the series, so the post-Russ Thunder actually went 2-2 against Houston. And the Rockets were mighty beat up, too: Jeremy Lin struggled with a bruised chest, Carlos Delfino missed Game 6 and James Harden dealt with the flu in Game 6.
The Memphis Grizzlies, who the Thunder face in a series that begins Sunday, are healthy, better than Houston and can assume they won't see Westbrook at all. This is a very dangerous series for OKC, needless to say.
Here are three keys to the series, starting with the one and only Kevin Durant.
KD needs to be even better. It's expected that sometime on Sunday the NBA will announce that Durant finished No. 2 in MVP voting for the regular season. He was barely nudged by Carmelo Anthony for the scoring title, but kept his impeccable efficiency up high and led the Thunder to the West's top record. He's had the best season of his career and is going to need to do even more.
OKC survived without Westbrook against the league's No. 16 defense. It will now face the league's No. 2 defense. Durant faced Francisco Garcia and Chandler Parsons in the first round; he'll have Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen to deal with this time around. And his teammates have to deal with better defenders in general and a tougher scheme to break. Every basket will be at a premium. Memphis is stingy, and while OKC had the league's best offense in the regular season, that offense heavily featured Westbrook. We saw in the first round how much the Thunder miss that.
Durant averaged 32 points per game on .610 true shooting against Houston. Doing that against Memphis seems both impossible and absolutely necessary. It's going to be a helluva battle between KD and whoever marks him.
Zach Randolph needs to continue on his warpath. Z-Bo's averages in the first two games against the Clippers, both losses: 13 points, 55 percent shooting, six rebounds, five fouls, 28 minutes. Z-Bo's averages in the last four games, all wins: 25 points, 57 percent shooting, nine rebounds, four fouls, 36 minutes. That was against Blake Griffin and Lamar Odom. He has Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison -- two tougher defenders -- in this round. Memphis's offense is so iffy that Z-Bo makes a huge difference. The Grizz can't count on outside shooting or much from Prince and Allen at the wing positions. It's up to Z-Bo, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, largely, unless you're the type to count on Jerryd Bayless.
Scott Brooks on trial. How ironic: so much criticism of Brooks has stemmed from how he handles Westbrook. Now he'll be judged by how he changes his team's attack without Westbrook. There seems to be a distinct call for less Kendrick Perkins, but Memphis is the one team in the West bracket you can't really go small against. Can you imagine KD guarding Z-Bo for extended stretches? So it'll be up to Brooks to decide how quickly to yank Perk for Collison, or whether to let Serge Ibaka take Gasol and watch Z-Bo and Perk start tire fires on every possession (You thought six games of Griffin vs. Z-Bo was bad?).
In addition, finding ways to get Kevin Martin the looks he got in Game 6 will be key; managing the point guard rotation of Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher is another area for Brooks that will draw criticism if it goes poorly. But let's be honest: This series is about KD's ability to play like one of the greatest forwards ever. He can make Brooks look like a genius or the opposite.
And I find it really hard to bet against KD. But I'm also not betting against the Grizzlies at home, so my prediction is Thunder in 7. Randolph played out of his mind over the past four games, but he has a much tougher task as a below-the-rim power forward with Ibaka in the paint. OKC isn't deep with shooters, but Durant and Martin can fill it up. The Grizzlies have no one I'd trust behind the arc. Memphis relied a lot on drawing fouls in the first round, as Conley, Gasol and Randolph averaged 21 free throw attempts per game themselves. Other than Perk, OKC doesn't foul a whole lot, and the referees swallow whistles in tight playoff games. So I think that asset is minimized. It should be a great series, though, assuming KD gets enough help to stay in striking distance.