Over the past few seasons, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder have been in the playoffs and have succeeded during their time in late April and May. However, the Grizzlies almost did not make the playoffs this season even though they were 18 games over .500. At the beginning of the season, the Grizzlies had trouble transitioning from Lionel Hollins’ to Dave Jaeger’s style of basketball. Also, Marc Gasol, the defensive player of the year last season, was injured throughout the beginning of the season. After the change of the calendar year, the Grizzlies have played great because they are reverting to their great defense. While the Grizzlies needed wins at the end of the season, the Thunder have been comfortably in the playoffs since the start of the season.
Although the Oklahoma City Thunder won the second most games in the west, they had a roller coaster type season because of the status of Russell Westbrook. However, Durant has taken the next step forward and was able to lead the team without Westbrook, one of the ten best players in the league. Despite Westbrook making the Thunder a more talented and dangerous squad, he can be extremely inconsistent and take shots away from Kevin Durant. The departure of Russell Westbrook forced Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka to improve as players and become more integral members of the team. If Westbrook does hurt his knee again during the playoffs, the team will be ready to play at a high level. Last season, the Grizzlies and Thunder matched up in the second round and the Grizzlies were able to win the series in five games. The Thunder did not have Russell Westbrook and the team was unable to play at a high level. Kevin Durant was unprepared to put the team on his back and lead them to a victory over the rough and tough Grizzlies.
Why the Thunder will win?
Kevin Durant. Although some may believe that James is the best overall player in the league, Durant has been the best this season and will win the MVP and scoring title. Durant has taken his game to the next level and showed that he can lead a team all by himself. While improving his scoring, his defense has taken a monumental step forward. Durant is unstoppable on offense and his full array of skills will be on display in the first round against Memphis.
Along with Durant, Westbrook is finally healthy and should be able to play at a high level. In his last four games, Westbrook has scored over 20 points per game while shooting 43% from the field. Westbrook is one of the most talented players in the league because he is among the most athletic in the league. Without Westbrook in the rotation, Jackson and Ibaka took a step forward and showed they can be consistent contributors in the playoffs. Both players have scored over 13 points per game, which will be important for OKC. Both need to play at a high level in order for the team to win the championship because they will be open a lot when teams devote attention to Durant or Westbrook.
During the season, the Thunder went 3-1 against the Grizzlies because they have more talent and matchup well against the Griz. Westbrook has the ability to shut down Conley and Ibaka has the length and agility to stop Randolph.
Why the Grizzlies will win?
After a few lengthy playoff trips, the Grizzlies have the experience to take another long trip into the playoffs. The Grizzlies will be led by their three best players Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley. The trio has been together for the last few seasons and extremely underrated as a trio. Mike Conley is one of the most underrated point guards in the league and has taken massive steps in the last few seasons. This season, Conley had the best season of his career and averaged 17 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals per game. Although many believed that Conley was overpaid when he signed his contract a few seasons ago, he has become one of the best players on the team and his contract proved to be a bargain. Conley will not turn the ball over frequently and will make his team run an efficient offense.
Like previous seasons, the Grizzlies will rely on their big men to score and stop the opposition from scoring in the paint. Randolph has been one of the most consistent players in the league because he has averaged at least 17-10 over the past 6-8 years with different teams. Randolph may have difficulty scoring against the great shot blocker that is Dr. Nasty. However, Randolph will have a massive weight advantage over Ibaka. If Zach can use his strength to overpower the mangily Ibaka, he will grab a lot of offensive rebounds and give the Grizzlies extra possessions to score more points.
Along with Randolph, the Griz have another talented big man in Marc Gasol. He was an MVP candidate last season because he has the ability to do everything on a basketball court. Like his brother Pau, he is a great passer. Gasol can block shots, play defense, pass, score, and rebound at an extraordinarily high level. The Thunder do not have an answer to Marc Gasol and he must play at his best, if the Grizzlies are going to win a few games in the series. Last season, Grizzlies were able to win because Marc Gasol did everything he could to lead the squad.
Prediction: Thunder win in 5 games
The Thunder are playing at a great level right now. Kevin Durant is playing at an extraordinarily high level and he will not be stopped in the first round by a quality Grizzlies bunch. Although Memphis will definitely win a game or two because they are a good team and great at home, I do not see them winning three games against this great Thunder squad. The Grizzlies do not have an answer for Durant and it will become evident when he scores over 35 points per game during the series. Although Tony Allen may be able to limit Russell Westbrook’s stats because Allen is a fierce perimeter defender, Russell will be too much for the Grizzlies’ defenders. Although the games will be close because the Grizzlies play great defense, the combination of Durant and Westbrook will not be stopped towards the end of games. Marc Gasol should show that he is again one of the best centers in the game during this postseason.
All Pics and Stats from ESPN.com