Throughout the regular season of the NBA, almost every team improves in some way, shape, or form. Yet, it is hard to argue against the claim that the Memphis Grizzlies probably improved more than any other team as the season progressed. Halfway into the season, the Grizzlies had a record of 21-20. However, the Grizzlies ended the season with a 50-32 record, meaning they went 29-12 in their last 41 games. During that time, injured players started to return, and players that weren’t playing to their full potential started to bounce back from slumps. The Grizzlies worked hard to prove that they deserved to be in the postseason, and through this effort, the team grabbed the 7th seed in the Western Conference and a trip to the playoffs. The team’s reward, though, is a first round matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Grizzlies have had some previous success in the playoffs against the Thunder. In the 2011 playoffs, the 8th seeded Grizzlies beat the 1st seeded San Antonio Spurs in what many consider one of the greatest upsets in playoff history. After this impressive victory, the Grizzlies faced the Thunder in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. While the Grizzlies were not able to take out the Thunder, they were able to bring the team to game seven, and the worn out Thunder couldn’t recover to oust the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. During last year’s playoffs, the two teams would once again meet up in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. This time, the Thunder would fall to the Grizzlies in five games.
However, the Thunder fared much better against the Grizzlies in this year’s regular season. There were a couple of key factors that attributed to the Grizzlies’ 1-3 record against the Thunder this year. First, the Grizzlies’ defense, as great as it is, seems to have problems containing almost any superstar. Kevin Durant was no exception to this fact. In all four games, he was able to shoot at least 50% from the field, and he scored over 30 points in three of the games. The Thunder also always out-rebounded the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies normally average 42.2 rebounds per game, but against the Thunder, that number falls to only 36 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, the Thunder was able to grab 42.5 rebounds per game against the Grizzlies. The problem with this is that the Grizzlies only give up an average of 39.4 rebounds per game, the lowest out of any team. What these numbers show is that, even if the Grizzlies aren’t the best at grabbing rebounds, they usually are still able to not let their opponents beat them on the glass, but this obviously wasn’t the case in their four games against the Thunder.
The Thunder, who finished 2nd in the Western Conference, will try to make sure that they can defeat the Grizzlies as soon as possible so that they can have plenty of rest for the next round of the playoffs. And while the players probably aren’t going into tonight’s game with the mindset that they are going to easily beat the Grizzlies in the playoffs this year, there is no denying that the Thunder are the favorites to win this matchup. However, the Grizzlies have proven in the past that they can play spoiler for almost anyone’s championship dreams, and with the team coming off a hot run late into the season, this year may be no exception. With that said, though, Grizzlies will have to be successful at accomplishing many goals if they want to beat the Thunder in the playoffs two years in a row.
First, the Grizzlies are going to have to take advantage of the Thunder’s mediocre defense. While Thunder do have some big threats on defense, such as Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, a lot of the other players that used to contribute to the Thunder’s previously excellent defense aren’t playing at the same elite level that they used to. Thabo Sefolosha just recently came back from a calf injury that kept him out of action for over a month, so he likely won’t be at full strength, and Kendrick Perkins continues to struggle as his body ages. The Grizzlies are also not afraid to get physical with their opponents, which should prove to be helpful against the Thunder, who seem to avoid being physical on defense. So while the Thunder certainly won’t be easy to score on, the Grizzlies should be able to play the type of game they want to on offense.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies will be primarily focused on their strong defensive play. Specifically, the team is going to have to shut down the Thunder’s three major threats on offense: Westbrook, Ibaka, and Durant.
Westbrook is very dangerous when he is on the court, but his recurring injury to his knee has forced the Thunder to occasionally rest him for a game or so every couple of weeks. This may show that Westbrook will not be as capable of being as explosive in the playoffs as he usually is, meaning that players such as Mike Conley and Tony Allen will have a much easier time guarding him. Westbrook isn’t as strong shooting from midrange and beyond the arc, so if the Grizzlies can make sure to not give him open lanes, Westbrook shouldn’t be able to go wild on offense.
Unlike stopping Westbrook, shutting down Ibaka should not be too difficult. During last year’s playoffs matchup, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph were able to contain Ibaka on offense. This was likely because Kendrick Perkins, the starting center for the Thunder, is very poor on offense and is really only on the court to play defense. This means that the Grizzlies were able to sag off of Perkins while putting more pressure on Ibaka. This year, the same thing will likely happen. Ibaka will still be able to score some points, but he will not be nearly as effective as he normally is against other teams.
Despite how important stopping Westbrook and Ibaka will be for the Grizzlies, the team must make sure that their main priority on defense is to contain Durant. It’s probably impossible for the team to completely shut down Durant, but there are ways to make sure he can’t be as big of an impact on offense that the Thunder needs him to be in order to win. When the Grizzlies beat the Thunder last year in the playoffs, Durant was commonly guarded by two or even three players. However, with Westbrook back in action, the Grizzlies are not going to have the same luxury, and Durant is likely going to have to be guarded by only Tayshaun Prince for the majority of the series. But if the situation is right, the Grizzlies shouldn’t be afraid to put an extra man on Durant even though the Thunder have more scoring options this year. Also, while Durant is becoming much better at scoring in the paint, he is still best at taking shots from mid-range and beyond the arc. If the Grizzlies can become familiar with the plays that the Thunder will run to give Durant open looks, then they will have an easier time guarding him, and if he is tightly defended at all times, he’s going to have less chances to make easy jump shots.
It’s still unlikely that the Grizzlies will be able to oust the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs. The Thunder seemed to have figured out how to beat the Grizzlies earlier on in the season. Westbrook’s return to the postseason will also add to what will overall be a much stronger playoff team than the Thunder had last year. So it isn’t absurd that people aren’t giving the Grizzlies much of a chance against the Thunder. But if Grizzlies fans have learned anything in the past few years, it’s that the NBA isn’t a popularity contest: what is expected to happen isn’t what always occurs. The Grizzlies are entering tonight’s game as the underdogs, but, seeing as they have had that same role multiple times in the past, an underdog is just what the Grizzlies want to be.