It feels like tradition when the Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder meet in the playoffs, a third time over the last four seasons. Last year the Grizzlies made the most of Kevin Durant being left alone in the battle to advance, but the return of Russell Westbrook changes everything about this rivalry.
Kevin Durant is playing the basketball of his life, and is on his way to win the MVP award. It’s almost impossible to stop him one on one, but avoiding fouls on him and keeping him off the free throw line might be the key to making this series a bit harder for him. Russell Westbrook is difficult to contain no matter what kind of defense you use against him, so doubling up on Durant makes it a much more difficult mission to contain the talented point guard.
Last year Westbrook didn’t play, and he missed quite a few games this season. When he returned after the All-Star break he posted some big numbers: 22.3 points, 6.9 assists and 5.4 rebounds and shooting 46% from the field in the last two months of the season. He still has his moments of losing focus on defense or obliterating his team’s offense without giving it a second though, but Westbrook in general is a better player than before.
The Grizzlies also had injury problems slightly derailing their season – Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, Mike Conley. This team is better than a 7th seed, although it’s hard to say in the ultra difficult west. The Grizzlies are inferior in both defensive and offensive efficiency overall this season, but in a full lineup, with a slower pace and doing the smart things to contain Durant, they’re going to look a lot closer to the team that beat the Thunder in five games last season and turned the series between them in 2011 to a seven game classic.
The Grizzlies are actually the hotter team going into the series, winning their last five games while the Thunder have been very inconsistent since the All-Star break. There’s bad blood, with volatile players not to mention the Thunder being the league leaders in player technical fouls, which means this thing can get heated pretty quickly.
Prediction – Despite losing recent games at home, the Thunder are very hard to beat there when they run. Opening game usually brings a lot of excitement before the adjustments that slow things down, and in a quick, fiery game, the Thunder don’t have a match in the league.