The Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder have the basketball world on its knees after a third straight overtime affair in their third playoff meeting in four years. The Grizzlies and Thunder are presenting their best showdowns yet with intense games, close player matchups, a high-leverage series for both teams and healthy squads.
Comparing Key Characteristics
Memphis and Oklahoma City have validated their rivalry in the past few postseasons. In 2011, a Grizz squad coming off an upset of the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs pushed the Thunder to seven games. The Thunder outlasted the Grizzlies in a triple-overtime Game 4. And unable to summon more energy, the Grizz suffered a 27-point blowout in the following game.
Both teams regularly grind it out through each contest that sees extra time. This year, Kevin Durant continues launching shots despite his low percentage. After Marc Gasol carried his team for most of Game 4, as his teammates hit 24 percent on their first 49 field-goal attempts, the rest of the team broke its slump and made 15 of 24 (62.5 percent) shots in the last two frames.
ESPN's Marc Stein tweeted about how this year's series stands out with its string of overtime games.
Last year's conference semifinals might have been a great triumph for Memphis, but it lacked the closeness of this series. While each of the five games was decided by six or fewer points, the balance tipped with Russell Westbrook's absence. With the gunner out of the equation, the "grit 'n' grind" defense could zero in on Durant.
Both teams have taken opposing stars out of their elements. Durant slumped in Games 2 through 4. During those games, he shot 35.5 percent from the field. He made one of 15 three-point attempts between Games 3 and 4.
As Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy tweeted, Tony Allen has shaken Durant.
Zach Randolph slogged through the first four games. He's shooting 36 percent for the series. That includes a 5-of-20 outing in Game 3. Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison are handling their primary assignments better than last year. They're allowing 99 and 102 points per 100 possessions, respectively.
Ibaka and Collison allowed 101 and 103, respectively, in last year's series.
Also, both were forced to work through uncomfortable circumstances. Memphis has generally kept games at agonizingly slow paces for the No. 9 team in the category. After a moderate 93.5-possessions-per-48-minutes rate in Game 1, the Grizzlies have held the pace below 88 each game since then.
In last two contests, the Grizzlies and Thunder overcame double-digit deficits to force an extra period.
Both teams have key players healthy
This is the first of the three series in which both the Grizzlies and Thunder have solid health at the top of their rotations.
In 2011, Memphis missed leading scorer Rudy Gay, who suffered a season-ending injury that February. That concentrated the interior-bound offense on Randolph and Gasol, allowing Oklahoma City to crash on them and ignore the perimeter.
Last year, Westbrook tore his meniscus in the previous round. Because of the sudden loss, Scott Brooks' crew stumbled into the meeting with barely adequate scoring from Reggie Jackson. Jackson failed to make a difference against the Grizzlies, averaging 13.8 points per game.
Since both teams entered the showdown with their most important players healthy, neither should be able to lament how they would have won the series at full strength. With Westbrook strong, the Thunder have their most potent shooting weapons together.
Having gone through all their injury woes, the Grizz now have all their tools at their disposal as well.
Stakes are high for both Grizzlies and Thunder
Both franchises would face serious questions if they were to fall in this series.
Suffering a second first-round exit in three years would affirm the new Grizz leadership's reshaping the roster around its analytics-based philosophy.
Primarily, this would mean parting ways with Randolph. If he continues to struggle through a series loss, Jason Levien and John Hollinger may reason that the 32-year-old doesn't fit in Memphis' future, whether in the or short term.
Randolph's game doesn't match an analytics framework. He's an inefficient shooter at 47.2 percent from the field and has produced more than 106 points per 100 possessions three times in his career.
Amid this talk, Randolph expressed to Marc Stein of ESPN.com his interest in re-signing for a lower price so that he could finish his career in Memphis.
Even if Randolph's agent presents an optimal deal, the front office may decide to let him go.
For the Thunder, losing to the Grizzlies in back-to-back postseasons would signify a crisis in its current title window.
In Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, they have a core with which they're confident they can win a championship.
Losing to the Grizzlies in consecutive years would hurt their ability to convince Durant that he can win one with them. They would have failed to draw a strategy that reduces Allen's defensive impact on him and creates good shots for him.
Durant, who has two years left on his contract, may look toward other teams to get a ring. Other teams are banking on that possibility. Stefan Bondy of The New York Daily News pointed out that the Brooklyn Nets, who have their sights on him, would have no one slated for the roster when he becomes a free agent.
Keeping the NBA's second-best player at ease requires that they at least reach the NBA Finals. Dropping in the first round would represent a major disappointment and disturb the team's central star.
This Grizzlies-Thunder series is taking the rivalry to a new level. With both rosters generally healthy, they're capable of using their greatest strengths. Repeated overtime trials have produced an array of memories.
When Memphis and Oklahoma City first met in the playoffs three years ago, both were young teams whose players were hardly tested in the playoffs. Now, core players like Gasol, Mike Conley, Westbrook and Ibaka have evolved. Seeing the aforementioned four and Durant in their prime step to the court for a first-round battle feels untimely.
That lends outsized meaning and high stakes to a series between two closely matched teams. A couple more games could tell whether the expected bounce-back of Durant or Randolph would launch his respective team to victory. Only through heated matches will Memphis' defense or Oklahoma City's shooting prevail.
Series stats are current through April 26 games. Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from Basketball-Reference.com.