(1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies
Series begins Monday in Oklahoma City.
Season series: Memphis won 2-1
Thunder starters: Kevin Durant SF (28.1 ppg, 4.6 apg, 7.9 rpg); Serge Ibaka PF (13.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg); Kendrick Perkins C (4.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg); Reggie Jackson Westbrook PG (5.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg); Thabo Sefolosha SG (7.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg).
Grizzlies starters: Tayshaun Prince SF (15.4 ppg, 11.2 rpg); Zach Randolph PF (18 ppg, 8.3 rpg); Marc Gasol C (14.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4 apg); Mike Conley PG (14.6 ppg, 6.1 apg); Tony Allen SG (8.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg).
Historical note: It was just two years ago that the Grizzlies and Thunder met in the second round of the playoffs. Neither team is a carbon copy of those squads but Oklahoma City did prevail in seven games.
For Oklahoma City to win: Kevin Durant needs to continue to add to his legacy. Sounds intense, but this is said without any exaggeration.
Without Russell Westbrook, the Thunder not only lose his numbers, they lose the edge his presence brings. As tough as the Grizzlies are, Westbrook backs down from no one.
Durant has to get his teammates involved early because Memphis will have plenty of length to guard him.
On the wings, Kevin Martin needs to continue the hot shooting he showed in the Thunder’s Game 6 victory in Houston while backcourt mate Reggie Jackson has to be a threat offensively as he directs the offence, doing his best Westbrook impression.
If they’re going to win, they will win with their superstar outshining the grit-and-grind Grizzlies.
For Grizzlies to win: They will need to continue to be as physical as they were in their first-round series against the Clippers.
The duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will be a load to handle, so the inside pairing of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins will have to step up their games. The Thunder will get out-muscled against the Grizzlies but can the wings provide some assistance for the Grizzlies up front?
With defenders like Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter ready to bump, hustle and crowd Durant, this series will show exactly how much the Thunder miss Westbrook. The game plan for Memphis is simple: Work Durant, wear him down and remain as physical as possible from opening tip to final buzzer.
Key matchup: Kevin Durant versus Tony Allen. Allen is a living nightmare for his opponents. He is intense, he is in your space and he relishes making your life hell when he is guarding you. And just when Durant feels like he’s settled in as much as humanly possible against a defender like Allen, the Grizz can flip Prince or Pondexter over to him. They are relentless and do not stop (or bluff). Having to carry the Thunder through the series with the Rockets, a physical series against the Grizzlies is the last thing Durant needs.
Big question: It will be interesting to see if the Thunder go small and put Durant at the four and force Gasol or Randolph to try and cover him?
Best bet: Grizzlies in five.