A battle of offense vs. defense is set to go down when the Oklahoma City Thunder host the Memphis Grizzlies and the intensity will match that of a playoff game. Oklahoma City is out to avenge an earlier loss at Chesapeake Energy Arena, and that's going to be tough against feisty Memphis
This game is still anything but a guaranteed revenge win. Oklahoma City has posted just a 2-3 record following a recent six-game winning streak, and all three losses have come to lesser conference opponents: the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers.
Kevin Durant and company need to get back on the winning track and a victory in Memphis would provide them with plenty of momentum going forward.
Of course, that means using their top-ranked offense against Memphis' elite defense, which ranks first in points allowed at 89.5 per game.
The stage is thus set for an epic showdown, one that only becomes more exciting since it's on national television.
Time: Thursday, January 31st, 8 p.m. EST
Records: Memphis Grizzlies (29-15) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (34-11)
Betting Line: Not available as of Wednesday, January 30, 2:20 p.m. EST
Injuries: Mike Conley (ankle, day-to-day per ESPN)
Key Storyline: Thunderous Offense Seeks to Overcome Stalwart Memphis Defense
The Thunder last faced the Grizzlies in November, and it wasn't a pretty picture. Oklahoma City lost 107-97, never fully recovering from a second quarter that saw them outscored 36-15. Rudy Gay led Memphis with 28 points and Zach Randolph chipped in 20 to go with 11 boards.
Not even 34 points and 10 rebounds from Kevin Durant could save the Thunder from 15 turnovers and Memphis just ran the game. Sure enough, the defending Western Conference champs will be out for blood in Round 2.
Of course, that's not going to be at all easy.
Memphis may not score many points, but its defense is ironclad. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are a deadly frontcourt tandem, and getting past them is probably just as difficult as breaking into the White House.
The Thunder must realize what mistakes they made against Memphis earlier in the season and use them as a motivating factor in this contest. The team has gone an astounding 19-3 at home and it'll be set to defend its home court by any means necessary.
This means not being afraid to get tossed around by the physical defense of Memphis and fighting through any bumps or bruises received to provide effective offense and just go into beast mode when asked.
That has been the drive behind the Thunder's approach ever since head coach Scott Brooks took over and this game against Memphis must reflect it.
Key Matchup: Serge Ibaka vs. Zach Randolph
This game needs to be all about defense, which means that Oklahoma City needs a solid game from Serge Ibaka. As per usual, the fourth-year forward out of Spain has been excellent for his team this season.
Ibaka has continued to dominate on defense, averaging 8.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks (second in the league) per game. However, he has also been a force on the other end of the floor this season.
He has posted 13.9 points per contest this season and is shooting 56 percent from the field, making him even more of a threat. Seeing as how Ibaka does most of his work on the inside, one would assume that his offense is in the same area.
That is where people are wrong.
Yes, much of Ibaka's scoring does come in the restricted area, but he has also proven to have a solid jump shot. Now that Oklahoma City can stretch the floor when necessary, Ibaka's overall value has risen tremendously.
However, his job in this game is to play defense, which means containing Zach Randolph.
Randolph has been excellent in the low post for Memphis this season and has subbed out his jump shot for work that is almost exclusively under the basket on both sides of the floor. This season, he has averaged 15.8 points per game and is second in the league with 11.6 rebounds per game.
Ibaka is no stranger to working the low post, which means that Randolph's game needs to be as physical as it has been all season. His only hope is simply taking Ibaka out of the game by locking down on him early and not backing down under any circumstances.
This is going to be tough, since Ibaka is never one to back down from a battle and is an excellent defensive player himself, so this matchup could easily be a stalemate.
Unfortunately, neither man can afford for that to happen.
Both Ibaka and Randolph simply need to be willing to go the extra mile in getting their team the win. This means going after every rebound and not being afraid to get banged up in the quest for victory. Believe it or not, whichever man's body has taken more punishment by the final buzzer will be on the winning side in this game.
X-Factor: Kevin Martin
Aside from matching Memphis' defensive effort, one way that the Thunder can control this game is by being absolutely unstoppable on offense. Of course, they'll need sixth man Kevin Martin to have a better game if that is to happen.
In Oklahoma City's first game against Memphis, Martin had just seven points on 1-of-4 shooting in 33 minutes.
Fortunately, Martin's overall numbers for the season have been much better. Since being traded for James Harden, he has averaged 15.1 points over 29.8 minutes per game. Martin has also shot 45 percent from the field and an incredible 43 percent from long range, making him an incredibly dangerous offensive weapon.
Martin has been even better over his last five games, posting 16 points per contest while making an incredible 56 percent of his shots and half of his threes. Needless to say, he must have this type of performance against the Grizzlies if the Thunder are to have their revenge.
This means not being afraid to drive the lane, nor hesitating to take a step back and create his own shot. From beyond the arc, he needs to be deathly accurate.
Granted, the Grizzlies defense is going to make that incredibly tough, what with Martin being guarded by pest extraordinaire Tony Allen, but that doesn't matter. If Martin focuses, he can find holes in Allen's game and help guide the Thunder to a victory over a tough defensive foe.
Memphis would love to beat the Thunder in Oklahoma City again, but it's not going to happen. OKC has improved too much and will be far too focused to let a win get away once again, which will be reflected in the final score.
Kevin Durant will come close to a triple-double, as will Russell Westbrook. Serge Ibaka and Zach Randolph, despite a great effort on both of their parts, will battle to a stalemate. Even Kendrick Perkins will give Marc Gasol a tough time, with Rudy Gay forced into savior mode early in the third quarter.
Who will win?
Of course, that is when Kevin Martin will start to heat up.
He will make key layups, jumpers and threes en route to being named one of the players of the game. His pure scoring talents will ice the game for Oklahoma City in the third quarter and the run will continue from there.
Long story short, the Thunder will be ready to play on both sides of the court and will come away with a big win. Memphis will only be able to watch in awe as its lack of offense is taken advantage of from start to finish, leaving its front office no choice but to consider trading for another scorer.
Oklahoma City Thunder 108, Memphis Grizzlies 94