The Oklahoma City Thunder are poised to make another NBA Finals run, they have to battle the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. A season ago, the Grizzlies knocked the Thunder out of the playoffs. Russell Westbrook did not play a single minute of that series due to a knee injury suffered in the opening round against the Houston Rockets.
Kevin Durant was healthy last year and is has been this year as well. That’s a good sign for Oklahoma City. Durant is likely to be named the NBA MVP, the first of his seven-year career. KD has been the best and most valuable player the entire season. He averaged 32 points per game, grabbed 7.4 rebounds per game, and dished out 5.5 assists per game. He won’t consider this season a success he and the Thunder can win the NBA championship.
The Grizzlies are used to being one of the top four or five teams in the Western Conference when the playoffs start. This year Memphis had to fight for the seventh seed. In the final game of the season, the Grizzlies took on the Dallas Mavericks with the winner avoiding the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and claiming win number 50 along with the seventh seed. However, it was more like a pick-your-poison matchup as the loser would face the Spurs and the winner facing the Thunder. Neither team is an easy out in the playoffs.
The Thunder made the NBA Finals two seasons ago, but was ultimately outmatched by the Miami Heat. If it wants to get back to the Finals, they must first get past the veteran-led Grizzlies. There are a few interesting match ups in this series. First, Tony Allen will get the defensive assignment of trying to stop Durant. While Allen is one of the league’s best defenders, Durant is on another level this season offensively. Allen will provide Durant some uncomfortable shots, but can he do that on a consistent basis. After all, Durant can get a shot off at any time with his 6’9” frame.
The next matchup will be like a tag team wrestling match. In one corner you have Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol representing the Grizzlies, while in the other corner for the Thunder stands Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Randolph leads Memphis in scoring (17.4) and rebounding (10.1). Gasol averages 14.6 points per game and pulls down 7.2 rebounds per game. Ibaka, the Thunder’s third leading scorer at 15.1 points per game and leading rebounder at 8.8 caroms per game will be very active defensively as well. Ibaka blocks 2.7 shots per game. Perkins will provide veteran toughness to the battle of the bigs. He won’t score 25 points, but he will make it hard for Randolph or Gasol to do that either.
The real key to this series will be Russell Westbrook. He averages 21.8 points, 7 assists, and corrals 5.7 rebounds per game. He also averages nearly two steals per game. If he can get Durant the ball early and often and not take deep shots early on in the shot clock, the Thunder will be in good shape. Opppsing Westbrook is Mike Conley, who has had a nice season of 17.2 points per game and 6 assists per game. Westbrook’s athleticism should give him the advantage, but Conley can try and keep up with his speed.
The Thunder rank 7th offensively and 5th defensively while the Grizzlies rank 18th offensively and 8th defensively. The pendulum swings in favor of the Thunder, but if they are to be successful and advance in the postseason, it will be no easy task. The Grizzlies are out to prove people wrong and prove that they can win it all, even being the seventh seed and facing the likely MVP in Kevin Durant. This is not a battle for the faint of heart. Can Durant and company finally step up and prove they are the best team in the NBA or will Memphis give them an early exit?