The NBA Playoffs have finally arrived. 16 teams enter but only one will remain and claim the throne come June. Unlike the top-heavy, bottom-weak Eastern Conference, the teams in the Western Conference – the one-seed through the eight-seed – are extremely talented. In the West, the Memphis Grizzlies will attempt to make history by becoming just the sixth seven-seed since 1984, when the playoffs expanded to 16 teams, to knock off the two-seed. The Oklahoma City Thunder, however, are considered by many to be favorites to claim the Conference title, if not the NBA title.
How the Thunder got here:
Kevin Durant. No, really – that’s just about how they got to where they are now. The 25-year-old megastar emerged as the league’s best player this season, outplaying LeBron James and pushing the Thunder to the two-seed in the fully-loaded West. KD led the league in scoring at 32.0 points per game and rattled off 41 consecutive games with at least 25 points scored, besting Michael Jordan‘s streak of 40 straight games.
Durant also kept the Thunder afloat in Russell Westbrook‘s absence. The point guard missed 36 games throughout the season due to knee surgery and the recovery, but now, as he states, is “pain-free” and the Thunder appear to be the league’s most lethal team.
How the Grizzlies got here:
It wasn’t always pretty, but the Grizzlies managed to not only squeeze into the playoffs but capture the seventh-seed. While the odds are obviously against them, Memphis is not your average bottom-seed squad. Since Marc Gasol returned in January from his knee injury which sidelined him seven weeks, the Grizzlies are an impressive 33-13 – one game better than the Thunders’ record during that span.
The Grizzlies won their last five games of the regular season, knocking off the Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns (eliminating them from playoff contention at the same time) and the Dallas Mavericks, thus securing their seed and are now rolling into the playoffs hot.
Player to watch on the Thunder:
Aside from the obvious choices – KD and Westbrook - Serge Ibaka is an extremely important piece of OKC’s playoff success. The 6-10 big man is the team’s best defensive player, and with the Grizzlies’ fire-power down low, he will surely have to step up. In 81 games this season, the 24-year-old averaged 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds while swatting 2.7 shots per contest.
Player to watch on the Grizzlies:
Tony Allen is a major factor to Memphis’s success in the playoffs. Just as Ibaka is the Thunder’s No. 1 defender, Allen plays the same role for the Grizzlies. He will be relied on heavily to guard Durant, the best pure scorer in the NBA. After Memphis’s upset over Oklahoma City in last season’s Western Conference SemiFinals, KD acknowledged Allen as a superb defender:
“He’s a good defender, but they’re a team,” Durant told The Oklahoman. “They do a great job. They’re not going to let me play one-on-one with anybody. But he’s tough because he’s small and he gets up under you and he’s good at contesting shots.”
Why the Thunder will win:
The Thunder will win because they are the better team, to put it in simple terms. They have the league’s likely MVP and arguably another top-5 player, so it is difficult to pick against them. OKC will also be seeking revenge due to their exit from the playoffs last season after Memphis beat them, without Westbrook.
With an offensive rating of 108.1 (seventh in the league) and a defensive rating of 101.0 (fifth in the league), the Thunder are deadly on both ends of the floor. They are also the only team to rank among the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency in each of the last three seasons. Even if they find themselves losing, they won’t necessarily feel the pressure; the team has won 14 of 31 games in which they’ve trailed by 10 points or more, good for a winning percentage of .452, which led the league.
Why the Grizzlies will win:
Both Zach Randolph and Mike Conley Jr. average upwards of 17 points per game, while Z-BO grabs down more than 10 rebounds and Conley dishes out 6 assists. Combine their production with Gasol and they make for a “Big 3″ teams should fear.
If the Thunder go small, which they occasionally tend to do, this could provide the Grizzlies with a chance to attack on the inside with their big men. And when they begin knocking down outside shots, this will force the OKC defenders to come out, leave the paint and allow more room. Above all else, 32 of the Grizzlies’ 50 wins came within five points in the last five minutes. Translation: the team has become accustomed to playing down-to-the-wire type basketball. This series shouldn’t be any different.
Prediction: Thunder in six.
Thunder won 3-1 (2-0 at home)
OKC OffRtg: 106.5 (7th vs. MEM)
MEM OffRtg: 98.6 (21st vs. OKC)
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies
Game 1 - Sat. April 19, Memphis at Oklahoma City, 9:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 2 - Mon. April 21, Memphis at Oklahoma City, 8 p.m., TNT
Game 3 - Thu. April 24, Oklahoma City at Memphis, 8 p.m., TNT
Game 4 - Sat. April 26, Oklahoma City at Memphis, 9:30 p.m., ESPN/R
Game 5 * Tue. April 29, Memphis at Oklahoma City, TBD, TBD
Game 6 * Thu. May 1, Oklahoma City at Memphis, TBD, TBD
Game 7 * Sat. May 3, Memphis at Oklahoma City, TBD, TNT
(Some statistics via John Schuhmann of NBA.com)