Matchup: No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)
Season Series: Thunder won 3-1
Efficiency Rankings: Oklahoma City (7th offense, 5th defense), Memphis (17th offense, 8th defense)
A year ago the Thunder looked ready to take the next step, the championship step. Their stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, were entering their prime and they had gone through the postseason learning experiences that champions almost always have to endure before their breakthrough. Everything seemed set. Oklahoma City was the No. 1 seed in the West ... and then Westbrook went down with a knee injury in the first round and the Thunder lost to the Grizzlies in the conference semifinals.
Consider this the Thunder's re-test. They again face the Grizzlies, the kind of team that isn't quite a true title contender but wrings every drop of energy out of teams that are. This time Westbrook will be on the floor and Durant has taken his game past magnificent to LeBron-level. Neither inexperience nor injury will be an acceptable excuse if they fail. Is this the year they take that final step, or will the Thunder be regarded as a team built for pretty regular seasons but playoff disappointment? Round 1 will begin to tell the tale.
The Case For The Thunder
The team with the best player usually wins, and that man is clearly Durant. He's been otherworldly this season, winning his fourth scoring title, at 32.0 points, while shooting 50.3 percent overall, 39.1 percent from three-point range and 87.3 from the free-throw line. The 25-year-old forward is poised to earn his first MVP award. Durant averaged 30.7 points in four games (three of them victories) against Memphis, which, with apologies to Tony Allen, really doesn't have anyone well-equipped to defend him.
The return to health of Westbrook, the Thunder's No. 2 offensive weapon, after three knee surgeries in less than a year is good news for OKC as long as the talented but sometimes reckless point guard remembers that Durant is The Man and doesn't pull up for too many 22-footers early in the shot clock. It will be Westbrook's job to push the pace so that the Thunder don't fall into the Grizzlies' half-court style, while staying under control at the same time. If he does that and OKC keeps the Grizzlies off the offensive boards, the Thunder should survive a serious challenge from Memphis.
The Case For The Grizzlies
The Grizzlies aren't your typical let's-just-not-get-swept seventh seed. They are a veteran team hitting their stride at exactly the right time. Since center Marc Gasol came back in January from a knee injury that sidelined him for seven weeks, Memphis is 33-13, which is a game better than OKC's record over the same span.
Memphis will try to grind out possessions, pounding the ball into beefy big men Gasol and Zach Randolph, on the theory that OKC rim protector Serge Ibaka can't block everything around the hoop. Defensively, the Grizzlies will make it a priority to get back quickly in transition and take away the easy fast-break points that the Thunder rely on to supplement their jump-shot-heavy offense. If they slow the pace (which is their specialty, as the slowest team in the league) and defend the three-point shot well (they ranked 12th in opponents' percentage), the Grizzlies could keep the scores in the 90s. And if that happens, Memphis just might pull this off.
PG matchup: Russell Westbrook vs. Mike Conley. Quietly, Conley has become one of the league's better point guards, and he will have a multitude of important duties against the Thunder. Defensively, he has to keep Westbrook in front of him, because the Grizzlies' half-court defense only works if they prevent the point guard from getting into the paint. Conley also has to hit the occasional jumper to keep OKC honest; run the pick-and-roll effectively; distribute well enough to spot-up shooters like Mike Miller to bring balance to Memphis' offense; and help make sure that the Grizzlies limit turnovers, which the athletic, transition-loving Thunder feed on. Conley is essential to almost every aspect of the Grizzlies' plan. Memphis needs him to at least play Westbrook to a standoff.
Thunder in seven. The Grizzlies will push them, hard. Memphis will muscle them, try to get in their heads and make them execute at the end of close games. Fortunately for OKC, it has a superstar who can handle all of those challenges and get it to the next round.