So it’s set. First up on Oklahoma City’s platter is the team that knocked them out of last season’s playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies. It took a bit longer than expected for the playoff seeding to be decided, but in the end, it was almost manifest destiny for these two teams to meet in the playoffs once more. It’s like fate didn’t really like how the series played out last season (you know, no Russell Westbrook and all), so she decided to initiate a do-over.
Fate has a habit of matching the Thunder against opponents they have a history with. Last season it was James Harden-led Houston Rockets in the first round (and the subsequent Patrick Beverly fallout). Two seasons ago, it was the Dallas Mavericks, who had beaten the Thunder the previous season in the Western Conference Finals and the Los Angeles Lakers, in a metaphorical passing of the torch.
Regular season series
Wins in the regular season don’t always paint a clear picture as to how a series will play out. Many variables exist during the season that do not exist during the playoffs. Scheduling, fatigue, and sample size are all factors that come into play during the regular season, but have little to no bearing during the playoffs. But there are always factors within a season series that are highly applicable to the playoff series.
The Thunder won the season series against the Grizzlies 3-1. Injuries played a major role in the outcome of a couple of the games. In the first game, a 116-100 OKC victory, the Grizzlies were without Marc Gasol, who was out with a knee injury. In the second game, a 90-87 Memphis victory, the Thunder were without Russell Westbrook, while the Grizzlies had their full complement of players. In the 3rd game, both team were without their starting point guards, but the Thunder prevailed 86-77. The fourth game, a 113-107 OKC victory, saw both teams basically at full strength (even though Kendrick Perkins was out and Thabo Sefolosha only played 4 minutes) and is probably more indicative as to how the series will go.
- Game 1 – Saturday, 19 April 2014 at 8:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
- Game 2 – Monday, 21 April 2014 at 7:00 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
- Game 3 – Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 7:00 PM CST (FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN)
- Game 4 – Tuesday, 26 April 2014 at 8:30 PM CST (FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN)
- Game 5 – Tuesday, 29 April 2014 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
- Game 6 – Thursday, 01 May 2014 TBD (FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN)*
- Game 7 – Saturday, 03 May 2014 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
* If necessary
Probable Starting Line-ups
- PG – Mike Conley
- SG – Courtney Lee
- SF – Tayshaun Prince
- PF – Zach Randolph
- C – Marc Gasol
- Bench depth – Tony Allen, Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos, Ed Davis, Beno Udrih
Oklahoma City Thunder
- PG – Russell Westbrook
- SG – Thabo Sefolosha
- SF – Kevin Durant
- PF – Serge Ibaka
- C – Kendrick Perkins
- Bench depth – Reggie Jackson, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Steven Adams
3 Keys to the Series
Post defense – Strength on strength. The Grizzlies’ offensive strong suit is the Thunder’s defensive strong suit. The Thunder have no problem packing the paint and retreating back on shooters. In fact, it’s what they do best (not the retreating back on shooters part, though). The Thunder have 4 players capable of defending Gasol, Randolph, and Kosta Koufos. What will be interesting is who starts off on who. Positionally, it should be Ibaka on Randolph and Perkins on Gasol. But, style-wise, Randolph’s bruising style is more suited for Perkins and Ibaka should be able to stay on Gasol, who likes to operate from 15 feet in.
Pace – Memphis tries to muddy up the game and keep it in the 90’s. If they are able to run their offense (half court-oriented, using a lot of the clock), and are able to dictate how you run your offense, that keeps them in their comfort zone. But if you force turnovers, score in transition, and don’t allow them to settle in defensively, it becomes very difficult for the Grizzlies to keep up in the scoring department.
Point guards – Probably the biggest factors in the series. Last season, the Thunder were without Russell Westbrook for the entire series. This season, the Grizzlies come into the series with a point guard that may have a nagging hamstring injury (Conley) and no back-up, due to Nick Calathes being suspended for 20 games due to a failed drug test. The Grizzlies come into the series with a slightly injured starting point guard and Beno Udrih. The Thunder on the other hand, come into the series with both their point guards in tow.
For Memphis – Their X-factor is Mike Miller. The one way to combat a defense that focuses on the paint is to punish it with perimeter shooting. Mike Miller has the ability to punish teams from the outside, and it’s one of the reasons the Thunder pursued so aggressively in the offseason.
For Oklahoma City – Their X-factor is Reggie Jackson. With Calathes being suspended for the series, Jackson should run roughshod when he’s in the game against the bench.
Thunder in 5.
Two things: First thing, not only is Russell Westbrook back and healthy for the Thunder, but the point guard depth for the Grizzlies took a hit with Calathes’ suspension. Secondly, Kevin Durant has taken last season’s disappointment and learned from it. He’s more adept at finding the open man and willing to punish teams with the pass, instead of firing up an ill-advised jumper with two or three defenders draped on him.