Published May 04, 2013
| Sports Network
The Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies battle in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs for the second time in the last three years.
After the Grizzlies ousted the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in 2011, the Thunder needed seven games to knock off the then upstart Grizzlies.
Fast forward two seasons and the Grizzlies are no longer a trendy team that plays good defense and has two good big men. Well, that's exactly what they are, but they do it at a very high level.
The Grizzlies led the NBA in opponents' scoring and the defense was anchored by the Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol. He and Zach Randolph are arguably the best big-man combination in the league, but this time around, the Grizz are healthy for this matchup.
Rudy Gay didn't play in that series two years ago. Back then, he was a huge presence on the Grizzlies. Earlier this season, he was shipped to Toronto and Memphis got back Tayshaun Prince in return. Prince's scoring numbers were down in the Grizzlies' six-game series win over the Los Angeles Clippers in the quarterfinals.
But Prince has won an NBA Championship and is a veteran presence. He will also be charged with trying to stop Kevin Durant, the second-leading scorer during the regular season.
When you discuss the Thunder, it's impossible to do so without acknowledging how difficult things were without All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook in Round 1 against the Houston Rockets.
The Western Conference's top seed lost one of the game's elite scorers and play-makers after Game 2. He underwent surgery on his right knee to repair a torn lateral meniscus.
Without Westbrook, OKC went 2-2 in their series with the Rockets. But the Grizzlies aren't the Rockets, especially on the defensive end where Memphis allowed 13.2 less points per game.
The Grizzlies don't want to hear anything about Westbrook.
"You've got to go play it. Everyone says, 'You can beat them because he's out.' They just won a series with him out," said Memphis coach Lionel Hollins. "I'm not worried about who they have or don't have."
Westbrook's absence was felt by the Thunder, but the team still scored over 100 points in all six games. In the deciding Game 6, six OKC players scored in double figures and the defense held the Rockets, the second-leading scoring team in the league, to 94 points.
"I think that was one of our best Thunder team wins that we've had all season," said head coach Scott Brooks.
BACKCOURT: With Westbrook healthy and dominant, this is a runaway. However, Reggie Jackson has done admirably trying to replace Westbrook. He's the team's third-leading scorer in the postseason at 14.0 ppg. Thabo Sefolosha is the team's best perimeter defender without Westbrook. He can knock down an open 3- pointer.
Mike Conley's scoring is up almost 3.0 ppg during the postseason and his assists are up almost 2.0 per game. Tony Allen, just another defensive stud on a team littered with them, is also scoring close to 3.0 ppg more in the playoffs.
FRONTCOURT: Durant is the second-best player in the NBA. Without Westbrook, his game has gotten even better. He's scoring more, and assisting more. Durant has had the ball in his hands even more as he's shifted to the primary play- maker role. He has a lot of pressure on him to now, almost single-handedly leading the team. Serge Ibaka is a fantastic defender and rebounder and has become a legitimate scorer. Kendrick Perkins has become a role player, logging about 15.0 minutes per game.
Randolph upped his scoring by 6.0 ppg during the playoffs. Gasol is up 3.0 ppg. Prince's numbers are down, but Randolph was like an unstoppable force against the Clippers. It'll be tougher against Ibaka, but Randolph and Gasol are perfect playoff players. When the game slows down in the postseason, dumping it down to them will pay dividends.
BENCH: Kevin Martin is an elite Sixth Man in the NBA. He is the fourth-leading scorer for the Thunder in the postseason. Derek Fisher has really stepped up his game. He is beyond battle-tested after all of those years with the Los Angeles Lakers. Nick Collison is a valuable defensive big man and sneaky scorer.
The Grizzlies have gotten a nice contribution from Jerryd Bayless. The only other significant bench pieces are Quincy Pondexter and Darrell Arthur. The reserves are not as important for Memphis.
EDGE: OKLAHOMA CITY
COACHING: Brooks is a former Coach of the Year and has a very soothing influence on his players. He preaches defense because he knows his offense is stout, even without Westbrook. Guiding a team through an injury as massive as Westbrook's is no easy task.
Hollins doesn't even have a contract next season. Like Brooks, he's not a ranter, or a raver. He's very calm and his players are such pros, they unconditionally buy in. Hollins has a defense-first mentality and the perfect philosophy for the postseason.
EDGE: OKLAHOMA CITY
PREDICTION: Injuries happen in sports and there's no timetable. Some hurt worse than others and the Westbrook injury is a catastrophe. The Thunder beat the Rockets, yes, but with Westbrook in the lineup, Houston probably doesn't win a game.
Westbrook's value is now fully appreciated. This was his best season as a facilitator and he also takes over games offensively. Westbrook can generate a one-man fast break.
Sadly, he is gone.
The Grizzlies are a perfectly-built team for the postseason. They have great recent success against the Thunder, winning two of three this season, including one in Oklahoma City.
Hollins may not have wanted to hear about how his team could beat OKC without Westbrook, but it's a reality. His injury will be too much for the Thunder to overcome against the best defensive team in the league.
SPORTSNETWORK PREDICTION: MEMPHIS in 6.