They held on.
Despite an incredibly unimpressive final week of the season in which it seemed as though they were trying to lose the two seed in the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder clinched home court advantage through at least two rounds with their 112-111 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night. Kevin Durant led the comeback, scoring 21 of his 42 total points in the fourth quarter, including a dunk over three Pistons with seconds left to take the lead.
Just a few minutes later, the Memphis Grizzlies beat the Dallas Mavericks in overtime, 106-105, to clinch the seven seed and a visit to Oklahoma to start the playoffs. The Thunder won three out of four meetings with the Grizzlies this year, but enter the playoffs coming off of bad losses to the reeling Indiana Pacers and Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans before squeaking out the win over the lowly Pistons.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies go into the playoffs riding a five game winning streak, including a big win over Miami on April 9th. And despite their poor record against the Thunder this year, they have to feel better with this matchup than going to San Antonio, who has blown them out four times this year.
Still, this will be a great matchup between two strong teams, and will provide the Thunder a chance to avenge their second round exit to the Grizzlies last year. Looking forward to Game 1 on Saturday, let’s take a look at each of the matchups in this series and see who has the advantage.
Russell Westbrook (OKC, Player Efficiency Rating: 24.7) vs. Mike Conley (MEM, PER: 20.0)
It’s been a bit of a down season by Westbrook’s standards. After missing his first ever basketball games in his career, including high school and college, during last year’s playoffs, he managed to only play in 46 games. His knee has been a nagging injury, but hasn’t kept him from being his electric self when he’s on the court. Westbrook averaged 21.8 points, 6.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals this during his playing time. Conley had a breakout year, and may be one of the game’s most underappreciated point guards. Averaging 17.2 points, 6.0 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game, he was a big reason Memphis had such a successful late season surge to get them into the playoffs. He is a smaller guard, but is not afraid to drive into traffic when needed. Westbrook is definitely the more athletic of the two, and with less back-to-back games in the playoffs, he should be playing in every game.
Thabo Sefolosha (OKC, PER: 10.4) vs. Courtney Lee (MEM, PER: 13.5)
It was a really tough year for Thabo. Known for his lockdown defense and not offensive production, his defensive metrics took a nosedive from previous years. Combine that with the paltry 6.3 points per game he contributed and he provides a bench player’s stats in starter’s minutes. Lee, acquired in a midseason trade with the Boston Celtics, has jumped right into a starting role and provided 11 points per game. He has also become a reliable three-point threat, hitting on 34.5 percent of his attempts. Sefolosha’s defensive skills should be enough to neutralize a fourth option like Lee, but having that low of a scoring option who provides double digit scoring is a great threat to have for the Grizzlies.
Kevin Durant (OKC, PER: 29.8) vs. Tayshaun Prince (MEM, PER: 8.2)
I’m not even going to get into this one. It’s the MVP who had a historic season against an aging veteran who is slowly losing his playing time. It’s 32 points per game against six points per game. It’s no contest.
Serge Ibaka (OKC, PER: 19.6) vs. Zach Randolph (MEM, PER: 18.3)
Last year, Randolph bullied Ibaka and was the best player for the Grizzlies team that lost in the Western Conference Finals. Ibaka was overmatched back then, as he wasn’t used to having to shoulder the scoring load as the second option with Westbrook out. But this is a different Serge Ibaka. He is much improved from last year, averaging 15.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. He remains an elite defensive player and has developed a nice jump shot from the high post. Randolph is a polar opposite. While Ibaka is a finesse player on offense, Randolph is a bruiser, backing into the paint and imposing his will on defenses. He averaged a double-double this season, with 17.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. The Thunder really do not have the bodies to consistently prevent Randolph from scoring.
Kendrick Perkins (OKC, PER: 6.3) vs. Marc Gasol (MEM, PER: 18.2)
Remember the days where Perkins was still a positive contributor to his team? Like when he was back in Boston? Or his first year in Oklahoma City? Those days seem so long ago. Age has hit Perkins hard, and he is inefficient in almost every statistical category. He’s not a scoring threat, he misses easy bunny layups, he is no longer a defensive stud, and he averages only 4.9 rebounds per game, a horrendous number for an NBA center. Gasol is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. He has had an injury riddled season, but has still been a positive contributor for the Grizzlies, averaging 14.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and an impressive 3.6 assists per game. Still, the big bodies of Memphis will force Scott Brooks to give Perkins significant minutes and hope for the best.
Thunder – Caron Butler, Reggie Jackson, Nick Collison, Jeremy Lamb, Derek Fisher, Steven Adams, Perry Jones, Andre Roberson, Hasheem Thabeet (Average PER: 10.6)
Grizzlies – Tony Allen, Mike Miller, Ed Davis, James Johnson, Nick Calathes, Beno Udrih, Kosta Koufos, Jon Leuer, Jamaal Franklin (Average PER: 14.4)
Both teams have strong benches. Butler has been a great addition for the Thunder, providing an excellent scoring punch. Reggie Jackson has been terrific this season filling in for Westbrook when he was injured. Collison and Fisher have provided smart veteran play with the occasional basket, and Lamb and Adams have developed immensely over the course of the season. The rest of the bench will not see much playing time most likely. For the Grizzlies, Tony Allen is one of the premier perimeter defenders in the league, and will probably see a lot of time guarding Kevin Durant. Mike Miller remains a top threat from deep. James Johnson has had some incredible games followed by some letdowns, so it will be interesting to see what he can provide in the playoffs. Overall, the Thunder have the best mix of veterans and youth, as well as the best pure scorer off of the bench.
Scott Brooks (OKC) vs. David Joerger (MEM)
Brooks, while sometimes criticized for his stubbornness and refusal to adjust playing time for favorable matchups, still managed to lead the Thunder to the two seed despite three of his five starters missing significant time due to injuries. Joerger, meanwhile, was unable to get the Grizzlies home court advantage in the first round during his first year in Memphis. Even though Gasol missed time to injury, many people expected more in terms of adjustments and play calling for a team that almost won the West last year.
Overall: This is a tough first round draw for the Thunder. The Grizzlies are a very physical team who will certainly push Oklahoma City to their limit. Memphis will not give up any easy layups, and have the big men to punish the Thunder on the offensive and defensive boards. If the Thunder can keep the Grizzlies’ defense honest by hitting their three pointers and prevent giving up second chances to score, they should advance to the second round.
Prediction: Thunder in 6: Game 1 – Thunder, Game 2 – Thunder, Game 3 – Grizzlies, Game 4 – Thunder, Game 5 – Grizzlies, Game 6 – Thunder
Read more Thunder rumors, news and opinion on our Oklahoma City Thunder page