After Oklahoma City advanced in the playoffs for the first time since relocating and Memphis won its first postseason series in franchise history, the two young teams will start a duel that could define the West for the next few seasons. But in their first-round victories, both showed some flaws that suggest they have some maturing to do. Against Denver, the Thunder did as expected, utilizing their stars to overwhelm a less-talented roster. Russell Westbrook, though, seemed caught in a struggle between distributing and scoring, an internal battle that led to a sideline tiff with teammate Kevin Durant. For their part, the Grizzlies did the unexpected, upending the top-seeded Spurs with a mix of athleticism and a big front line, albeit with a number of late-game defensive collapses that no team can afford deeper in the playoffs.
Thunder's bigs vs. Grizzlies' bigs. The Grizzlies play unlike any team left in the postseason, force-feeding two post options on offense -- Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol -- that few clubs have the size to match. The Thunder may be one of those teams now, though, with the trade deadline acquisition of Kendrick Perkins, who has proved his defensive skills in frustrating Dwight Howard in past playoffs. Gasol may not loom as big of a threat, but when paired with Randolph, the two combined to average 38 points on 64.2 percent shooting in four regular-season meetings with the Thunder. But none of those games included Perkins, who now has shot-blocking Serge Ibaka by his side to pose a threat in the paint that the Grizzlies hardly faced in the first round.
Thunder's fouling. Oklahoma City could hand out extra inflatable sticks for fans to drum behind the basket, but that wouldn't accomplish what it needs to: keep Memphis off the line. Against Durant and Co. this season, the Grizzlies attempted more than 30 free throws per game, six better than their average. It was no surprise that Randolph led the parade to the line, but the slashing Tony Allen, who equaled Randolph by averaging almost eight attempts, will prove to be a test for the Thunder's interior defense.
Tony Allen. No player can swing the series in Memphis' favor more than its defensive stopper. If he can slow down Durant, who averaged 28.9 points per 36 minutes when facing Allen, according to NBA.com's Stats Cube, Memphis and its deliberate attack will be able to keep pace with the Thunder. Especially if Allen can also kick in the 10.4 points per game he averaged in Grizzlies wins this season. Allen's intensity fuels the Grizzlies, as shown against the Spurs. And as long as he doesn't fall prone to some of his out-of-control forays that marked parts of his Celtics tenure, Allen's fight should serve his teammates well again.
After their first-round victory, the Thunder didn't sound exactly thrilled at the prospect of playing Memphis. Who can blame them after losing three of four to Memphis in the regular season and watching it dismantle a 61-win Spurs team? But with Perkins in tow now, Oklahoma City should have enough to compel Memphis to rely more on its perimeter options; that would force the Grizzlies to step away from an identity that enabled them to become the fourth eighth seed in NBA history to beat a No. 1. Plus, the Thunder have the athleticism to keep Allen and Mike Conley in front of them, as well as the scoring options to hammer Memphis should its defense prove leaky. Thunder in seven.