Now that the NBA regular season has come to a close, we can set our focus on one of the greatest spectacles in sports: The NBA Playoffs. There are a ton of great matchups coming up in the first round, and we are all looking forward to enjoying the madness.
Over the next two days, the NBA writers here at numberFire are going to break down each series, in a way that you won't find anywhere else. We're going to be looking at the numbers. Today, I'll be analyzing the two vs. seven matchup in the West: Oklahoma City vs. Memphis.
Oklahoma City Thunder (2)
Championship Odds: 11.5%
Memphis Grizzlies (7)
Championship Odds: 1.2%
Regular Season Series - Thunder 3, Grizzlies 1
The Thunder took three of four against the Grizz in the regular season, while Kevin Durant scored at least 31 points in three of those matchups. In the most recent meeting between the two teams, Durant scored 30 of his game-high 37 points in the second half of a 113-107 Thunder victory. In the lone Memphis win over Oklahoma City this season, Courtney Lee led the way for the Grizzlies with 24 points, overshadowing Durant's 37 in a game the Thunder played without Russell Westbrook.
One of the strengths of this Memphis team is their ball control. The Grizzlies rank third in the league with only 12.9 turnovers per game, while the Thunder rank near the bottom of the league at 14.8 per game. This will be a matchup of elite offense versus elite defense, too. The Thunder sit fifth in the league with at 106.2 points per game, and the Grizz rank third in the NBA, allowing only 94.6 points per game. Memphis has allowed the Thunder to score just over 100 points per game in their matchups this season, while being held to just 93.5 per game in the series. Despite only scoring 18 points in the 116-100 victory on December 11th, Durant is still averaging 30.75 points per game this season against the Grizz, barely below his season average. If Memphis can't keep the NBA's leading scorer in check, this could be a short, quick series for the Thunder.
How the Thunder Can Win
The Thunder has to get Russell Westbrook going. Wesbrook only played in two of the four matchups against the Grizzlies this season, and the Thunder won both games by an average of 11 points, while Westbrook average 24 points, 7.5 assists, and 4 rebounds per game. Westbrook is a tough matchup for anyone, but the Durant/Westbrook duo has been lethal this season. There really is no elite defender on Memphis' roster that can slow down Durant, and even Mike Conley has trouble on the defensive end with Westbrook.
The other main key for Oklahoma City will be turnovers. Westbrook has been known to play an aggressive, in-your-face style of game throughout his career, and it can be incredibly hard to defend. But this type of play has led to many turnovers on the offensive end, which has created a lot of fast-break points for the defense. If he can maintain possession of the ball and make good decisions, this will be a tough team to beat.
Thunder Player to Watch – Serge Ibaka
Ibaka's shot blocking prowess is second to none in the NBA, and he's become known to some as Serge “Iblocka”. He had 10 blocks in the four matchups this season, as well as 37 rebounds. He is a formidable foe for Zach Randolph down low, and if he can neutralize Z-BO down on the block, he has the ability to take over the game and serve as the third man in a dominant trio along with Westbrook and Durant.
Ibaka has held Randolph in check for the majority of each of the four matchups, with Randolph shooting 6 for 15, 7 for 21, 5 for 14 and 5 for 12 from the field. As we saw last year against San Antonio, this Grizzlies offense falls flat without production from Randolph.
How the Grizzlies Can Win
Defense, defense, defense. The Grizzlies are a team that can dominate on the defensive end, but generally struggle offensively. They lack a dominant scorer, and that has been their downfall many times. In the Grizzlies one win this season over the Thunder, they held Oklahoma City to just under 41% shooting from the field, including 5 for 21 from beyond the arc. In that same game, the Grizzlies forced 19 OKC turnovers, which included seven from then-starting point guard Reggie Jackson. If Memphis can dictate the tempo on the defensive end, they have a great shot at pulling the upset.
Marc Gasol missed quite a bit of time during the season, but the reigning Defensive Player of the Year is peaking at the right time. Gasol has the ability to dominate the post, and affect shots in the lane. He will need to have one of the best series of his life if the Grizzlies are going to assert themselves on defense and slow down the potent Thunder offense.
Grizzlies Player to Watch – Mike Conley
Mike Conley played very poorly in the last meeting, connecting on only 1 of 10 shots from the field, while also committing five turnovers. In the Grizzlies' 90-87 win on January 14th, Conley posted 19 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals and only committed one turnover, while forcing his counterpart, Reggie Jackson, into seven turnovers. Conley will need to have the same type of performance against Russell Westbrook in this series if the Grizz want to have a chance to advance.
Conley can be one of the most underrated point guards in the game, and if he can frustrate Westbrook and get him off of his game, the Grizzlies can make this series very interesting. Conley has shown the ability to score points in bunches, and he may need to take on a lot of the scoring load if the Grizzlies are going to match the Thunder on offense. Memphis has nobody on defense that can slow down Durant, and they will need all the firepower they can muster.
Ultimately, the Thunder's offense will be too much for the Grizzlies to handle, and the trio of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka will prove to be the difference. The Grizzlies don't have a scorer who can take over a game, and that will eventually be their downfall.
According to our algorithms: Thunder in 5
My final prediction: Thunder in 5