Will Tough Series Against Memphis Grizzlies Kill OKC Thunder's Title Energy?

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistApril 29, 2014

Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) defends against Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins (5) in the second half of Game 4 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series Sunday, April 27, 2014, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Mark Humphrey

The Memphis Grizzlies are a handful, and the Oklahoma City Thunder are getting the chance to learn that once again.

The Grizzlies and Thunder have met in three of the past four NBA playoffs, and each time, it seems the Grizz have a habit of tiring out OKC. Actually, Memphis has a tendency to do that to most teams: Exhaust them in a hard-fought playoff round to such a degree that even if the Grizzlies end up losing the matchup, their opponents sometimes find themselves too beaten up to win down the line.

Memphis has done this to teams before...we think.

It's kind of an unprovable concept, right? We don't really know how much beating up a team in one round translates to another, even with the Grizzlies' constant physicality.

In 2011, the Grizzlies ground the Thunder for seven games during the second round of the playoffs, and OKC fell in five to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. But were the Thunder exhausted from going the distance with Memphis, or did they just lose to a hot-as-ever Mavs team, which eventually defeated a dynasty Miami Heat squad in six?

In 2012, Memphis drove its first-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers to seven games, and the Clips promptly dropped four straight to the San Antonio Spurs in Round 2.

The Clippers got rocked in that series, but was that because they were tired or just because San Antonio was so much better than them that season? The Spurs went 50-16 that year, the best record in the West, compared to LA's 40-26.

The Spurs had Gregg Popovich. The Clippers had Vinny Del Negro. It was perfectly conceivable the Clippers would lose that series, and lose embarrassingly, regardless of how their first-round matchup went.

Last season, Memphis went all the way to the Western Conference Finals after ousting the Clippers and Thunder in the first two rounds of the playoffs. But again, it was those Spurs. They're like the Wiz—nobody beats them.

San Antonio swept the Grizzlies and went on to lose one of the most exciting NBA Finals in league history.

As Blake Griffin told ESPN in last year's playoffs, this team is about as physical as it gets:

I think it's their style of play as a team in general. They like to grind it out. They're physical down low. Not just with one guy but all their bigs. That's just the kind of style they play.

Which way will this Oklahoma City series go? Can the Grizzlies really exhaust the Thunder? After all, they're making the Thunder work as much as they possibly can.

Tony Allen may guard Kevin Durant as tightly as any player in the world under 6'8", and lately, he's showing it. Durant, who has shot just 38 percent from the field and 31 percent from three in his last seven playoff games against the Grizzlies, hasn't been able to score efficiently against Memphis.

Sure, the Thunder aren't exactly countering Memphis' slow game with the most inventive half-court sets, but let's tip our collective cap a bit to the Grizzlies as well. From NBA.com's John Schuhmann:

Also from Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders:

Defenses don't get to more than half of an offense's shot attempts. This doesn't happen. This isn't particularly realistic, but the Grizzlies are doing it.

Oklahoma City is having to work that much harder for open shots. We can probably extrapolate that the Thunder are exhausting themselves after each of these contests, but how much does it carry over from game to game? From series to series?

Mark Humphrey

Both the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors, whom the Thunder-Grizzlies winner would play in the second round, have a reasonable balance of physicality and athleticism. Those teams play a fast game but can knock you down at the same time.

LA and Golden State may not be the best matchup for a potentially beat-up Thunder team. If you can punch a wounded man in the face and then run away fast enough where he can't catch you, the puncher has a decent chance to win the fight.

If OKC drops the first-round series, none of this even matters. The Grizz grit 'n' grind themselves to Round 2, and Durant, Russell Westbrook and the lot of them go back to Oklahoma.

At this point, though, we're deadlocked 2-2, and even if OKC pulls out the series victory, the Thunder may find themselves too drained to be competitive in the ensuing rounds.


Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

All statistics current as of April 29 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.