It's been two years since the Thunder and Grizzlies battled it out in an intense seven-game series that ended with a Game 7 triple-double for Russell Westbrook and the Thunder moving on to the Western Conference finals.
A lot has changed, from the Thunder exiling James Harden to the Grizzlies doing the same with Rudy Gay, who didn't even play in the series. Gone from Memphis is Shane Battier and O.J. Mayo, with Tayshaun Prince and Jerryd Bayless in their places. Missing will be Westbrook, who was such a central figure in that seven-game marathon.
But the stakes are the same. Second round, with a trip to the Western Conference finals on the line. The Grizzlies are a changed group from that 2011 squad, but in a lot of ways, exactly the same. They fell to the Thunder in that series without Gay, so essentially it's going to be a redux. Except the Thunder don't have Westbrook, which is the potential difference-maker here.
The Thunder seemed to recover a bit from the drunk stumbling they did against the Rockets in Games 4 and 5 of their opening-round series, while the Grizzlies muscled their way to four wins in a row over the Clippers after falling behind 0-2. Memphis certainly appears to be the favorite here, but the Thunder still have the best player in the series.
1. What happened: As is almost always the case between the two teams, the season series was close. The Grizzlies took the first meeting, in OKC, behind a brilliant second-half offensive performance by Gay. So, you can discard that one as meaning anything.
The Thunder took the second meeting, also in OKC, the day after the Grizzlies traded Gay and didn't have any of their new pieces, and hadn't recovered emotionally from the trade. So you can discard that one, too.
The Grizzlies took the final meeting, a 90-89 overtime slugfest won on a Marc Gasol tip-in at the buzzer, a game almost won by Westbrook, who soared to the rim for a go-ahead layup in the final 20 seconds. So, really, you can throw that one out, too.
The three regular-season meetings don't feel like they can tell us much of anything because so much has changed. No Westbrook means a completely reinvented Thunder team, one that has had to refocus around Kevin Durant as more of a traditional lone alpha dog.
So what happened? A lot, but it doesn't seem to matter now.
2. X-factor: Everyone knows what the Grizzlies want to accomplish. It's not just that they play inside-out and want to pound inside to Zach Randolph and Gasol. It's that they want to overwhelm you physically and let the inside establish everything else.
Against most teams, this philosophy is extremely effective. But most teams don't have the frontcourt defensive horses that the Thunder do. Start with Kendrick Perkins, who was essentially worthless in the opening-round series against Houston, but now will be especially valuable. Or Serge Ibaka, who struggled handling Houston's small-ball lineups, but now has a more traditional matchup.
But potentially the most important player in the series is the always unsung Nick Collison. There may not be a better pest for Randolph than Collison, who is one of the most intelligent, disciplined low-post defenders in the league. Consider: Per NBA Stats, Randolph in three games this season against the Thunder (71 minutes) with Collison on the bench: 28 points, 37.5 percent shooting, and a plus-23. With Collison on the floor (44 minutes), Randolph scored 16 points on just 27.3 percent shooting (6 of 22) and was a minus-32.
The Grizzlies have more weapons than Randolph, most notably Mike Conley, who is blossoming into the upper tier of point guards, but their focus is Randolph on the block. That's their identity, especially late in games. They want to hammer Z-Bo constantly with low-post position and let him flip up soft shots. Collison defends Randolph better than anyone, and if he can pull it off again, he might be enough to close the gap of missing Westbrook.
3. The big narrative: Whatever the Thunder do, it's all about who they are and how they perform without Westbrook. Their inability to get sorted out almost cost them a 3-0 series lead against the Rockets, but Kevin Martin finally woke from his slumber to join Durant.
Quietly, Reggie Jackson has been a revelation, performing exceptionally well in Westbrook's role. In his four starts standing in for Westbrook, Jackson averaged 17 points on 44 percent shooting with almost four rebounds and four assists, while turning it over only 2.5 times a game. Jackson was terrific, and again, these were the first four starts of his career. He's never regularly played 30 or more minutes a game, except in a few stints in the D-League.
And here's a dirty little secret: Westbrook historically has struggled more against the Grizzlies than any other team. Both productively and emotionally. In 2011, Westbrook went 0 for 13 from the floor and had a reported altercation with Durant on the bench. This season, after a disagreement with Thabo Sefolosha, Westbrook threw a tantrum on OKC's bench and stomped off into the tunnel mid-game. The Grizzlies' high-intensity, tough-minded approach always seemed to get under Westbrook's skin, mostly because Tony Allen is just a defensive bulldog.
This is not to suggest in any way, shape or form that the Thunder are better off in this series without Westbrook. OKC desperately needs Westbrook. The Grizzlies possess probably the best halfcourt defense in the league, and that's precisely been OKC's struggle since Westbrook went down. The Thunder are sorely going to miss Westbrook's ability to improvise and break down a defense on his own.
But Jackson has been good. He takes care of the ball and his playmaking skills are coming along. It's a complete change in philosophy for the Thunder in this series. The Rockets play soft defense, while maybe no one is better in the league on that end than Memphis. The Rockets fire 3s at will, while the Grizzlies shoot fewer than anyone in the league. It's a major contrast in style, and the Thunder will be forced to adjust, right as they were finally seeming to adapt.
4. Prediction: In some ways, the Thunder might be fortunate to have drawn Memphis instead of the Clippers. With the Thunder's offense remaining a question, the good news is the Grizzlies aren't a powerful offensive team that can erupt for explosive bursts of points. And the Thunder can match their strength with their own strength. Matchup-wise, the Thunder are in good shape.
It's just a matter of if Durant can continue to shoulder the offensive burden, both scoring and distributing. OKC needs the Game 6 Martin to show up, the one who scored 21 in the first half and 25 overall. OKC needs Jackson to keep progressing as a playmaker. The Thunder need Sefolosha and Derek Fisher to make the open shots that Durant provides them.
One difference here is the Grizzlies have better defenders to throw at Durant in Prince and Allen, meaning they're less likely to double and triple Durant like the Rockets did. The Grizzlies can defend a little more straight up, and put a whole lot more pressure on OKC's role players.
In the end though, it's going to be Memphis' defense against Durant. These games will likely be close, and will likely come down to halfcourt possessions in the final five minutes. Can Durant do it all on his own against maybe the best halfcourt defense in the league?
The pick: For the Thunder, defending home court in Game 1 might be the series decider. It feels silly to put all their marbles in one basket like that, but the Thunder still have homecourt advantage in the series, and establishing it in Game 1 would be a significant confidence boost.
Because let's face it: I'm not entirely sure they're convinced they can beat the Grizzlies. They need to prove it a little, both to themselves and everyone else.
This series could swing either way, and a lot of it will depend on how well Durant plays, if Martin can add that supplementary offensive punch -- Martin has historically torched both Allen and the Grizzlies -- and if Jackson continues with his impressive poise and composure. I think the Thunder can stop the Grizzlies in the halfcourt. They match up well enough to do it, at least somewhat consistently. The question is if they can keep pace, and score themselves. It's going to be a grind, and the Grizzlies might just wear down OKC both physically, and mentally.
Grizzlies in six.