Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder: Western Conference Round 1 Preview

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2014

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The Oklahoma City Thunder are healthy with a chance to get revenge on the Memphis Grizzlies for last year's Western Conference semifinals.

The Grizzlies took down a Russell Westbrook-less Thunder team in five games last May, but Oklahoma City bounced back, winning three of the four regular-season matchups between these two squads this year.

Now, we're officially living in Groundhog Day, but that sure is life with the Grizzlies. Memphis seems to play the same teams in the postseason every year and now, we know 2014 probably won't be much different.

If the Grizzlies want to make the 2014 NBA Finals, they have to go through the Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs. In the spirit of basketball Passover, why is this year different from all other years?

It's not. It's all fixed.

The Thunder, though, finally have a chance to win it all, and if they fail to do so in a season when Kevin Durant will likely receive his first MVP trophy, the questions are going to start piling up. Is Scott Brooks the right coach for this team? Can Durant win in the postseason? Is this the right roster to build around KD and Westbrook?

It may not be fair, but that's the way the sports world works in 2014. At the very least, the Thunder need to make the finals to maintain their reputation.

It's playoff basketball, a matchup between two 50-win teams that know each other extremely well, and that means we could be in for one heck of a series.

Sue Ogrocki

Seed: Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 2); Memphis Grizzlies (No. 7)

Records: Oklahoma City Thunder 59-23; Memphis Grizzlies 50-32

Season Series: Oklahoma City Thunder beat Memphis Grizzlies 3-1

Schedule for Series:

Game 1, April 19, Memphis at Oklahoma City, 9:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)

Game 2, April 21, Memphis at Oklahoma City, 8:00 p.m. EST (TNT)

Game 3, April 24, Oklahoma City at Memphis, 8:00 p.m. EST (TNT)

Game 4, April 26, Oklahoma City at Memphis, 9:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)

Game 5, April 29, Memphis at Oklahoma City, TBA (if necessary)

Game 6, May 1, Oklahoma City at Memphis, TBA (if necessary)

Game 7, May 3, Memphis at Oklahoma City, TBA (if necessary)

Key Storyline for the Thunder

Can Kevin Durant carry his tremendous regular season into the playoffs? Durant is the likely league MVP. We know that. It seems like everyone with an opinion is in agreement there.

But what we don't know is how he will fare against a stingy Memphis defense, which finished eighth in points allowed per possession this season.

KD has found success in the playoffs before, posting averages of 28.6 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists with a 46-34-85 percent shooting line over his postseason career, but this year seems different, doesn't it? Durant has taken some sort of leap on both sides of the floor.

He's a better defender both on and off the ball. He's a legitimate distributor, who has learned to master pick-and-roll decision-making. Somehow, he's managed to maintain his almost unrealistic efficiency even with a spike in shooting volume that helped him lead the league in usage rate during the regular season.

Scott Brooks has put so much weight on Durant's shoulders. He's made his star player have to do so much work that it probably wouldn't be all on Durant if the Thunder offense were to flame out in the postseason. From Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:

I think [the Thunder] still need more designed sets to get easier offense. A game like last night [against the Detroit Pistons], for as entertaining as it was down the stretch, it was bad basketball. Durant had to take over and bail out the team. This team should be well beyond that at this point. It's great to have that as an option to go to. But to rely on it so much is not a good sign.

The West is so strong this year that the Thunder are hardly guaranteed a spot in the Finals. Heck, they could fall short of the Western Conference Finals, and it wouldn't be all that shocking. But Durant may still need to win the conference to keep up his current legacy.

We're somehow obsessed with the idea of evaluating legacies before a career is over, even though that's like trying to review a book when you still have 200 pages to go. We did it with Michael Jordan when it took him seven years to win a championship. Lord knows we did it with LeBron James, but so far, no stink has drifted over to Durant.

Maybe that's because KD has never propelled himself to "Best Player in the NBA" status over the course of a full season. He's always played second fiddle to LeBron.

But now, as he plays the role of the leading man, Durant may have to make or win the Finals to avoid that criticism. "Kevin Durant can't win in the playoffs!" might be an unfair statement, but it's possibly all we're going to hear if the Thunder drop a series in the first two rounds.

Key Storyline for the Grizzlies

Danny Johnston

Can the Grizzlies frontline bully the Thunder?

That's what Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are, right? They're the antagonists of the NBA. And they're as good as anyone at maintaining that persona. 

They're bullies in the most positive way. Almost like the O'Doyles, so persistent in their imposing ways that you just know they're never going to go away. We all know Z-Bo's son will be pushing around mini-Blake Griffin in the playground a few years down the line.

That's just how the Grizzlies play defense. And it works. All the time.

Alonzo Adams

There's a reason Memphis ranked 24th in points allowed per possession when reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol missed seven weeks in the middle of the season. It's the same reason they have posted the second-best defensive efficiency since his return: "GaZBo" just knows how to play together.

Talk about a turnaround. Memphis went from a bottom-seven defense without its best player to top two with him, and the Grizzlies are 33-13 since their center's return. If that doesn't scream from the mountain tops how good Gasol actually is, I'm not quite sure what does.

Meanwhile, he is only getting better and better since his return, and that's on both sides of the ball. From Ross Wooden of the Grizzlies communications department:

But it's not just about the Spaniard. It's also about chemistry.

That's what so much of defense is, knowing where your teammates are at all times. GaZBo has mastered that.

There is an explanation for why teams who were recently pieced together usually don't have the best defenses: Chemistry and communication don't happen overnight. But Gasol and Randolph have been together for five years now. Five long, gritting 'n' grinding years.

Now, they communicate better than any big-man combination in the NBA. Randolph roughs guys up on the block. Gasol protects the rim and blows up pick-and-rolls like no one else (both of which will be huge against Oklahoma City's rim-running, pick-and-roll-heavy offense, by the by), and the rest of the defense takes it from there.

You can tout Tony Allen as the best perimeter defender in the NBA. You can talk about what Courtney Lee and Mike Conley, who deserves to be first-team All-Defense one of these years, mean to this team, but it all starts down low and works its way to the outside. 

Need to shelter your defense from the opposition raining in shots? In Memphis, that always starts and ends with GaZBo.

The X-Factors 

Alonzo Adams

Reggie Jackson always seems to be the X-factor for this Thunder team. 

There's one running narrative that has held true throughout this season, almost no matter what. When Jackson plays well, so does Oklahoma City.

It sounds so simple, but there's actually plenty of truth to the theory. Jackson can be the series changer.

The Thunder have struggled to find bench production all season. 

Jeremy Lamb got off to a nice start, but has tapered off in the second half of the season. Nick Collison, Steven Adams and Perry Jones aren't top-notch scorers. Derek Fisher, meanwhile, started his career when Jackson was just six years old, and Caron Butler isn't that much younger than Fish.

So when the Thunder bench searches for scoring, it usually ends up finding Jackson, who averaged 13.1 points in 28.5 minutes per game this season.

The problem is that Jackson tends to be inconsistent. He's either hot or cold. When he hits his shots, though, this is a different team.

The Thunder have a ridiculous 32-4 record when Jackson goes for 14 points or more. And really, that's no coincidence.

Oklahoma City is getting just 19.9 bench points a night from its reserves not named Jackson, according to Hoopsstats.com. It's hard to win a series with that lack of production. If OKC wants to top Memphis, it'll need scoring to come from somewhere other than Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, and that means some of the burden falls on the sixth man.

Danny Johnston

On the other side, the storyline always following around the Grizzlies is, can their wings shoot well enough? So instead of going with one X-factor, we'll take out our revolutionary, person-combining machine and mash Memphis' only two perimeter shooters together. 

X-factor: Mike Lee. Or is it Courtney Miller?

Mike Miller has been one of the best under-the-radar signings of the 2013 offseason after draining nearly 46 percent of his threes during his first year after returning to Memphis. Courtney Lee, who the Thunder acquired midseason from the Boston Celtics for Jerryd Bayless, was also a sneakily helpful acquisition. But still, those are the only two shooting threats this team has on the wings.

Memphis head coach Dave Joerger has a bad habit of overplaying Tayshawn Prince, who is running up 25.6 minutes a night with just a 29 percent three-point percentage and plenty more bad to go with it. Actually, overplaying undeserving veterans could be a theme on both sides of this series.

MEMPHIS, TN - JANUARY 14: Courtney Lee #5 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket against Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 14, 2014 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The Grizzlies play the slowest pace in the league, and even though Joerger does probably push his team to run too often, this is a squad that is going to force itself to work out of half-court sets. That means it needs Conley to set up the shooters on the wings, and it needs Mike Lee to hit those open opportunities. Or Courtney Miller. Either one.

Historically though, when one of the two players gets hot, the other one doesn't. Miller and Lee have each hit two or more threes in the same game just two times all season.

Lee may have his strong nights. So may Miller, but it doesn't ever seem to happen at the same time.

The good news: one of those games was against the Thunder, though that contest did end a six-point Memphis loss. So it's been done before, just not nearly consistently enough.

If the Grizzlies want to pull off an unassuming upset, they'll need to find shooting production on the wings from someone, and those two guys stand the best chance of catching fire for six or seven games.

Key Matchup

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - FEBRUARY 28, 2014:  Mike Conley #11 of the Memphis Grizzlies handles the ball against Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder the Chesapeake Arena on February 28, 2014 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Mike Conley vs. Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook had to make it in here somewhere. The Thunder point guard missed all of last year's series between these two teams, and that may have been what swung the five-game set in the Grizzlies' favor. 

Now, Russ is as healthy as he's been since initially clanking knees with Patrick Beverley during the first round of last year's postseason, and Conley is probably the point guard best suited to guard him.

Look at the best defensive point guards in the NBA. Except for maybe Chris Paul, they're all gamblers in some fashion.

Westbrook, Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Lowry, Ricky Rubio, Beverley.

All those guys take risks off the ball, and go for steals as a No. 1 priority. That doesn't make them bad defenders—everyone on that list is well above average—but it does mean they can be somewhere between just a bit and extremely dangerous.

Westbrook vs. MEM, Conley vs. OKC in 2013-14

Conley, though, is grouped closer to Paul, and he's probably a more successful on-ball defender than the slightly less athletic Clippers point guard. Ultimately, he's an ideal defender to match up against Westbrook.

Now, that doesn't mean he's perfect or that he will stop Russ in this series. The beauty of Westbrook is his unpredictability. But he does stand a chance to slow him down.

If anyone can defend a Westbrook-Ibaka screen-and-roll, one of the best pick-and-pop combinations in the NBA, it's Conley and Gasol. If anyone can take away point-guard penetration, it's the best defensive 1 in the league with the help of last season's Defensive Player of the Year. And tag teaming Westbrook with Tony Allen wouldn't hurt, either.

Sue Ogrocki

Joerger has put a greater offensive burden on Conley this season.

The former Ohio State Buckeye has hit career highs in points and shots per game along with usage rate, and because of that, he's had to take the smallest steps back defensively. But against Westbrook, defense has to become Conley's first priority again.

So what happens on the other side of the ball? Do the Grizzlies go to Gasol in the high post more often to give Conley a break every once in a while? Actually, that may not be the worst strategy in the world, especially when Kendrick Perkins is on the floor.

It's hard to say exactly how the Westbrook dynamic will affect Conley, but there will be some reverberations there. Now, we just have to figure out how each coach will adjust.


Lance Murphey

Durant is too good. Westbrook is too healthy.

These aren't last year's Grizzlies, who were a wonderful team, but got fortunate enough to face some hobbled stars in the postseason. 

Cue the angry Grizzlies fans. I can hear them now.

Let's remember last year's team fell down 2-0 to the Clippers in the first round, and came back with some help from a Blake Griffin ankle sprain. It defeated a Westbrook-less OKC squad in five. And then, when it had to play a true championship contender, it couldn't win a game against the Spurs.

That's not to say last season's Grizzlies weren't good. Or even really good. Of course they were. They just happened to have some luck on their side, as well.

This year, that may not be as true. 

Westbrook is finally back to getting real playing time, hitting the 33-minute marker in four of his final five regular-season games. Ibaka is massively improved on both ends of the floor. And Kevin Durant is—well, he's the consensus MVP. 

Put together a roster like that, complement it with defenders like Thabo Sefolosha, Collison and Adams, and the Grizzlies' unremarkable offense may have some serious trouble trying to put the ball in the basket.

Memphis has had a wonderful season, especially after coming back to win 50 games following a 13-17 start, but Oklahoma City is too good to drop so early in the playoffs. The Grizzlies may put up a fight, but in the end, it will be all Thunder.

Prediction: Oklahoma City in six.

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 17 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.