One team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, are arriving in the conference semifinal as the top seed in the Western Conference, but reeling for their first round series and missing their second best player, while the Memphis Grizzlies, winning four consecutive games to climb out of a 0-2 hole, might actually be considered the favorites.
When taking a look at their three regular season games, it’s further indication that the Thunder might be a little bit in over their heads. It’s hard to think of those games as anything indicative – the Grizzlies’ first win over the Thunder was back in November; the Thunder January win was right after Memphis traded away Rudy Gay and were still adjusting to life without their top scorer; the third win was a one point overtime thriller, but it did suggest something – Durant is going to have a very hard time against the best defense in the NBA in points allowed per game.
Durant shot only 11-28 from the field during that game, and he’s going to see a lot of Tayshaun Prince and other players helping him in traps over the Thunder’s star, who carried his team with 32.5 points per game as they went 2-2 without their star point guard. On the other side of the ball, Mike Conley is playing the best basketball of his career, having a huge series against Chris Paul, averaging 17.3 points and 8.3 assists in the six games.
While Kevin Durant is everything for the Thunder, him alone isn’t enough. It’s going to be interesting to see what the Grizzlies defense prepares for Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson. Martin scored 25 points on the closing game in the series vs the Rockets, while Reggie Jackson averaged an impressive 14 points during the series. He isn’t the explosive player Westbrook is, obviously, but he’s much more disciplined offensively and doesn’t disrupt Kevin Durant or take away from his shots.
Meanwhile, for the Thunder, their interior defense is in for quite a rough fight, although they’re better equipped to handle big lineups than the Clippers were without a fully healthy Blake Griffin. Zach Randolph went to work during the four consecutive wins, averaging 24.8 points per game. He had a rough time against the Thunder during the regular season, shooting only 33.3% from the field and averaging 14.7 points.
Marc Gasol and his ability to play further from the rim will be important. Causing some spacing and allowing Randolph a one on one situation to try and dominate the paint. If the Thunder allow Randolph to get hot early by going time and time again to his favorite post spots, it’s going to be a rough series to come out of.
Predictions – Without Westbrook, the Thunder are no longer an elite team. Their defense is solid, but the offense is still a wild guess and in the hands of Kevin Durant. Those aren’t bad hands to be leading your team, but it won’t be enough to make it out, with the Grizzlies winning in six.