Memphis Grizzlies (8) AT Oklahoma City Thunder (4)
Series Odds: OKC -350, MEM +275
Game 1 Line: OKC -5.5
Current Line: OKC -6
Opening Total: 198
Current Total: 195
Opening Moneyline: OKC -265 / MEM +225
Current Moneyline: OKC -285 / MEM +240
- Game 1: at OKC Sun, May 01 – 1:00 pm EDTTV: ABC
- Game 2: at OKC Tue, May 03 – 9:30 pm EDTTV: TNT
- Game 3: at MEM Sat, May 07 – 5:00 pm EDTTV: ESPN
- Game 4: at MEM Mon, May 09 – 9:30 pm EDTTV: TNT
- Game 5: at OKCWed, May 11 – TBATV: TNT
- Game 6: at MEM Fri, May 13 – TBATV: ESPN
- Game 7: at OKC Sun, May 15 – TBA
Memphis somehow found a way, not only to beat the Spurs, but to beat them in decisive fashion, closing the Spurs out in 6 games. Oklahoma City made even shorter work of the Denver Nuggets, winning the series in 5 games over a Denver team that simply had no answer for Russell Westbrook nor Kevin Durant. Marc J. Spears and the Ball Don’t Lie blogger of Yahoo both picked OKC in 5 games, as well, so not many were giving the Melo-less Nuggets much of a chance, anyway.
Memphis’ situation was somewhat the same. TNT Analyst Charles Barkley correctly called this upset, as the top seeded Spurs fell and were out played thoroughly the entire series. Both the Thunder and Grizzlies could be contenders over the next 3 to 5 seasons. Both teams have young players in their prime and both have solid max contract players. Last season, the Thunder won 50 games, 23 more than the previous season, and many are calling them a possible contender this season. If you recall my season preview article detailing the chances for the long shots at a championship, you will remember I advocated Kevin Durant and the Thunder as an excellent speculative bet at 18 to 1 odds.
Let’s take a look at the matchups involved in this series:
Mike Conley vs. Russell Westbrook
While Conley has made great strides this season, he is certainly outmatched by All-Star Russell Westbrook. Conley had his best season as a pro this year, averaging a career high 13.7 points per game, while also setting a career high 6.5 assists. He also had a lot of steals, recording 1.8 a game, among the top in the league. He’s always had a fair outside shot and he doesn’t force a lot of bad shots either, which keeps his field goal percentage reasonable (44%).
Expect Westbrook to use his size to his advantage in this matchup. He’s nearly 3″ taller than Conley and has a much stronger build. He could take Conley in the post several times a game, seeking easy close range jumpers. Westbrook is going to have to curb his shot appetite, though. He took 30 shots in game 5 against the Nuggets and the Thunder lost. He must realize Durant is the number one offensive option on the team and defer to him accordingly, especially in late quarter situations, where Durant can much more effectively create mismatches through pick and rolls or excel in isolation. Conley averaged 14.3 points per game against the Spurs, while shooting just under 40% from the floor. It was mostly due to poor shooting performances in games 3 and 6, both of which the Grizzlies won anyway. He put up about his season’s average for assists too, recording 6.2 per game for the series. Westbrook has a pretty big advantage here, but don’t pity the Grizzlies. Though Conley has yet to live up to the promise that made him the fourth overall pick in 2007, he hasn’t been a bust either.
Advantage: Oklahoma City
Tony Allen & O.J. Mayo vs. Thabo Sefolosha & James Harden
Both the starters in this matchup, Allen and Sefolosha, are defensive stoppers, and both teh backups, Mayo and Harden, are known primarily for their scoring and shooting ability. It will be interesting to see what the coaches opt to do with Allen and Sefolosha defensively since stopping one another will be of little concern. It seems that Allen is likely to see time covering Durant, but he may be a bit on the short side for that. Sefolosha won’t encounter any premier wing layers with Rudy Gay out for the season due to a left shoulder injury. While losing Gay seemingly should have crippled the Grizzlies, the strong play of Sam Young and the acquisition of Shane Battier has enabled them to stay more than relevant. Mayo has experienced serious regression ever since his rookie year and is unlikely to return to Memphis (Chicago fans are salivating over this). Harden has proven himself to be a good scorer and a fair defender and should have a solid future in this league. He may be best suited to the sixth man role, however, as an “instant offense” role off the bench could enable him to flourish.
Sam Young & Shane Battier vs. Kevin Durant
The Grizzlies are very fortunate. They are a team with not only Battier, who has long been considered a premier defender, but Sam Young also plays pretty good defense. I’m not suggesting they will contain Durant at all, but they are at least giving themselves a good chance with this duo, or as good a chance as most teams will ever have. Young had big scoring games in game 2 against Denver (17 points) and in game 5 (18 points). Games 2 and 5 were also the only games in which he saw more than 25 minutes. Standing only 6’6″, Young may find himself a little short to contest Durant jumpers and Battier is likely to see the lion’s share of the minutes in this series. It’s all about matchups. How much will Durant go off on an aged Battier? That’s really anyone’s guess. Battier could still pull a few tricks out of his Duke sleeves and frustrate the younger Durant with his veteran savvy and experience.
Advantage: Oklahoma City, by a ridiculous margin
Zach Randolph & Darrell Arthur vs. Serge Ibaka & Nick Collison
Randolph is by far the best of these four players and after appearing to be nothing but a team cancer in his days in Portland, he has grown and matured over the years into a veteran that is capable of posting huge numbers on any given night. The Thunder are lucky to counter with a defensive player like Ibaka here. Ibaka is an excellent leaper and shot blocker, and blocked 2.4 shots a game in 27 minutes this season, 3.2 blocks per-36 minutes. While he doesn’t do much other than dunk on offense, he still manages to put up 10 points per game on 54.3% shooting from the field and he shoots well from the line as well at 75%.
Nick Collison is still relevant to the Thunder though, especially since he is able to slide over and play center much like Ibaka can. Collison doesn’t blow anyone away with flash, but he’s very solid. This season in only 21 minutes a game, he posted 4.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and shot 56.6% from the floor. He’ll come in, committ a few solid hard “playoff fouls,” score a couple garbage baskets, and that’s all the Thunder really need from him.
Darrell Arthur made huge strides this season, especially as a scorer, scoring 9.1 points per game in 20 minutes of action. Though he is 6’9″, his long frame makes him appear like a coordinated 7 footer, and he should develop into an effective wingman over time, or perhaps a post man if he develops more bulk. He’s still a bit of a tweener at this point.
This matchup is really all just about Zach Randolph’s dominance, though. He’s going to put up huge numbers all series, and though the Thunder have good answers for him defensively, he finds a way to score against taller and more athletic players on a consistent basis.
Marc Gasol vs. Kendrick Perkins & Nazr Mohammed
The Thunder don’t really get much offense from Perkins or Mohammed, but the Grizzlies do rely on Gasol a little offensively, though his numbers have regressed a little from his huge breakout last season. He played 81 of 82 regular season games and put up 11.7 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per game. In 09-10, he put up 14.6 points per game and 9.3 rebounds. His minutes did go down from 35 to 31, but that wasn’t the only reason for his decline. He shot nearly 6% lower from the field and had 1.1 less offensive rebounds per game (an offensive rebound usually results in a score for the player). I don’t expect Gasol to have much of a series against Perkins, and this matchup really isn’t as advantageous to the Grizzlies as some experts might be inclined to think. I give the Grizzlies a slight edge here, though.
This series is an interesting one. Memphis took 3 of the 4 regular season meetings between the teams, but the Thunder have been nearly unstoppable so far (though it was against a BAD Denver defense). Many favor the Thunder due to their more exciting appeal and brand of basketball, but to dismiss Memphis would be a serious mistake. They did just knock off the number one seed in the playoffs, afterall. Still, I think prime time players make prime time plays, and the Grizzlies have been missing their second best scorer in Rudy Gay. It’d be easy to give them the advantage most likely if they had the All Star wingman.
Series Prediction: Thunder in 7