Any doubts about new Memphis Grizzlies head man Dave Joerger's coaching abilities should be put to rest after Memphis' 111-105 Game 2 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was not a poorly coached game from Scott Brooks, nor was it an especially poorly-played game by Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook. The Grizzlies just had too many answers on both sides of the ball. That this game even went into overtime is a credit to Durant and Westbrook, because Memphis' game plan was airtight and beautifully executed.
In particular, the Grizzlies shined in two areas.
TONY ALLEN DOES IT AGAIN
What more can we say about TA? There is no reason whatsoever that he should be able to guard Kevin Durant, not while giving up seven inches in height and countless more in wingspan. And yet, he did just that, duplicating and even enhancing his Game 1 effort that unfortunately was too little, too late. Joerger was smart to play him heavy minutes, including in a small lineup that gave Oklahoma City fits.
While Allen gives up size, he does not give up any quickness. Nobody in the league is better at slipping through obstacles than TA. The Thunder kept trying to screen him off and he kept finding ways around those screens, whether it was fighting over the top, shooting the gap or just jamming his legs into Durant's so he couldn't move. It harkened back to the 2011 playoff series between these two teams, when Allen harassed a less experienced Durant, forcing him into tough shots from bad spots on the court.
This video shows it all.
You'll notice so many different types of ball denial in there. There are times when Allen fronts Durant and prevents lob passes to the post or the wings. There are times when Durant loses Allen for a moment, but Allen shoots the gap, preventing a pass. There are times when the Thunder try to get Allen off Durant via a pick-and-roll, but Allen stays right with him. Finally, there are times when Allen just sticks his leg in, fights over the top of a screen and puts himself right in Durant's grill. It's a beautiful display of tight, aggressive defense that nobody else in the league can pull off.
There are ways for the Thunder to adjust and get Durant better looks in Game 3, but they come with trade-offs. They can run Durant into the post and create better passing angles, but that allows the Grizzlies' big men to come over and help jam those lanes. Notice Marc Gasol in this clip, for example.
The Thunder could also have Durant bring the ball up the court, especially in crunch time. This way, Allen's ball denial isn't a factor. But doing that also makes an already simple Thunder offense even more one-dimensional, which could take everyone else out of the game. It also allows Memphis to load up its help defenders to stop Durant more easily.
Durant and the Thunder will need to be sharper in general with their off-ball movement. This is KD's chance to show he really has evolved this part of his game.
HAMMERING THE NAIL
Joerger's offensive adjustments will get less press, but they were equally important in Memphis' Game 2 win.
Oklahoma City has one of the league's most aggressive defensive schemes. Two men jump out on the ball on pick-and-rolls and a third floats to the middle of the floor to cut off the easy pass to the big man. Oklahoma City is willing to use this scheme because it believes it's athletic enough to rotate back and because that third man is usually someone who can guard multiple zones at once.
The key to beating Oklahoma City's D is attacking that third man. If he's able to disrupt ball and player movement, the Thunder are in good shape. If not, teams can generate good looks. He'll always stand on the "nail," a spot described as follows by SB Nation's Doug Eberhardt:
One of the key defensive spots on the floor, where teams can literally help stop middle penetration and figuratively shout out their defensive philosophy. The nail is located at the very middle of the free throw line: 15 feet from the middle of the basket, eight feet from the edge of each side of the NBA key.
In Game 2, the Grizzlies made sure that third Thunder player was occupied. They did this in a number of ways. Sometimes, they set a backscreen on him as the pick-and-roll was happening, like here:
Other times, they would run cutters off each other to confuse the nail man. Watch this Courtney Lee drive closely:
Notice how Allen and Lee switch positions while the initial pick-and-roll is happening. This is key because Westbrook, the nail man, thinks he has nothing to worry about. Allen isn't a shooter, so Westbrook is helping off aggressively and isn't prepared to close out. But once Conley skips the pass cross-court, Westbrook is in an unexpected spot. He takes a poor angle on his closeout and allows Lee to get to the middle for the floater.
In general, the Grizzlies made sure to run pick-and-rolls where the man on the opposite side -- the man the Thunder's "nail guy" leaves to help on the pick-and-roll -- was a good shooter. This was usually Lee or Mike Miller. On the rare occasions where it wasn't one of those two guys, it was usually because there was a concurrent cut to the basket. For example, this Allen cut:
Those adjustments allowed Memphis to win the Battle Of The Nail in Game 2. The Thunder, in particular Westbrook, need to be more aware of those adjustments as the series moves on. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, need to keep at it and stay poised in the face of that initial trap instead of turning the ball over.
Buckle up. It should be a great final five games.