Memphis Grizzlies vs. OKC Thunder: Western Conference Semifinals Preview

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIMay 4, 2013

The last time the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder squared off in a playoff series was the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals.

The Grizzlies fought valiantly by winning Games 1, 3 and 6, but ultimately fell to OKC in a decisive Game 7.

Two years later, both teams have had alterations to their rosters. However, an Oklahoma City team playing without James Harden and Russell Westbrook this time around will be the biggest change.


Seeds: Oklahoma City Thunder No. 1; Memphis Grizzlies No. 5

Records: Oklahoma City Thunder 60-22; Memphis Grizzlies 56-26

Season Series: Memphis Grizzlies won 2-1

Playoff schedule: Game 1 Sunday, May 5, 1:00 p.m. ET (ABC), Game 2 Tuesday, May 7, 9:30 p.m. ET (TNT), Game 3 Saturday, May 11, 5:00 p.m. ET (ESPN), Games 4-7 TBD


What Everybody’s Talking About: Kevin Durant and the Interior Matchups

Kevin Durant was truly put to the test in Round 1 against the upstart Houston Rockets. Playing against former teammate James Harden and without current teammate Russell Westbrook, KD had the series hoisted on his broad shoulders.

OKC’s superstar will have to step up big time once again against stingy perimeter defenders like Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter. Durant was frustrated to a degree in Round 1 by the defensive exploits of Francisco Garcia, Carlos Delfino and Chandler Parsons. How he fares against better defenders in Round 2 is a key factor to watch out for.

Meanwhile, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will continue to lead the charge for the Memphis Grizzlies. In theory, OKC can match up with them adequately on defense with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, but slowing down the Grizzlies’ two elite interior talents will be a tough task to handle.

The Thunder could catch an early break if the league decides to hand down a suspension for Z-Bo following an altercation in the Grizzlies’ closeout win against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Partway through the third quarter, Randolph and Blake Griffin got tangled up underneath the basket and fell to the hardwood for a wrestling match. In the fracas, it appeared as if Griffin drove his elbow down on the back of Randolph’s head, while Randolph appeared to grab Griffin’s neck area with his left hand.

If the league determines that Randolph was choking Griffin, he could face a suspension similar to New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith, who served a one-game suspension for elbowing Boston Celtics guard Jason Terry in Game 3.


What Nobody’s Talking About: The Emergence of Key Role Players

Durant, Randolph, Gasol and even Mike Conley are the stars leading the way for both teams, but underrated role players will be huge X-factors in the Western Conference Semifinals.

For Memphis, Jerryd Bayless has provided a tremendous offensive spark off the bench as the backup point guard. The former University of Arizona Wildcat scored 19 points off the bench for the Grizzlies in Game 1 and added 18 points on 6-of-13 shooting in Game 6.

Also, keep an eye out for Quincy Pondexter. The 25-year-old has found a consistent niche in Lionel Hollins’ playing rotation as a perimeter defender who can knock down threes.

As for OKC, Reggie Jackson will continue to fill in for the injured Russell Westbrook. Against the Houston Rockets, he had 18 points in Game 4 and 20 points in Game 5. His overall performance in Game 6—with 17 points, eight assists and seven rebounds—was truly eye-opening.

If Jackson regresses in Round 2, even a player as good as Durant will have to make up too much slack.


Don’t Forget…

With Memphis leading 2-1 in the series down by nine points with 5:25 left, the Grizzlies stormed back to tie the game in regulation on a deep three-pointer by Mike Conley.

From there the game ballooned into a triple-overtime marathon. OKC ended up getting the crucial win to tie the series at 2-2 despite 34 points and 16 rebounds from Randolph and 26 points and 21 rebounds from Gasol.

This went on to be one of the most entertaining playoff matchups in recent memory. Now the Grizzlies are looking to avenge the defeat.


Key Matchup: Ibaka and Perkins vs. Randolph and Gasol

The impending one-on-one battle between Durant and Allen is certainly intriguing, but KD is going to get his points.

The true key matchup for both teams will be on the interior. Randolph and Gasol will aim to continue their dominance in the post, while Ibaka and Perkins will try to thwart their effectiveness by playing sound defense.

Considering that Perkins has been pretty much useless to OKC in the playoffs thus far, he has a lot to prove in Round 2.

If you’re an Oklahoma City fan, shield your eyes from this next clip.

Gasol used his elite post moves to put Perkins in a spin cycle. He made him look downright silly in the process. Unless Perk locks down defensively, the No. 1 seed in the West could be facing an early playoff exit.