When the Oklahoma City Thunder meet the Memphis Grizzlies in the first game of their NBA Western Conference playoffs on Saturday, the story line will be Aesopian in nature, i.e. The Tortoise and the Hare. Playing the part of the tortoise is Memphis and their bruising, methodical, deep-into-the-shot-clock style.The hare will be portrayed by Oklahoma City and their stable of jackrabbits racing the length of the court, darting into the hole they call the paint and just as quickly back out again never tiring, always in motion.
Entering the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the west, The Thunder love to run and thrive on scoring. MVP candidate Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook lead an offense that ranked fifth in the NBA with over 106 points per game. Durant took the scoring title with 32 points per game and Westbrook likes feeding the beast, leading the team with 6.9 assists per game. Even though the Thunder score a lot of points, they are still very good on defense, giving up 99.8 points per game and ranked No. 12 in the league.
The Grizzlies are the third-best team in the NBA in points-allowed, but it is hard to know if that statistic is due to good defense or their deliberate, half-court style on offense. They ranked almost last (27) in the NBA in scoring at a tick over 96 points per game. Power forward Zach Randolph leads the team in points (17.4) and rebounds (10.1) per game. He is the type of player whose work is not pretty but gets the job done, and that could be said for the entire Memphis team. Point guard Mike Conley is right behind Randolph in scoring average (17.2) and has grown into one of the most solid in the league at his position.
In the season series, the Thunder have a 3-1 edge, winning both home games and once on the road. The Grizzlies knocked the Thunder out of the NBA playoffs in the conference semi-finals last year after Westbrook was lost due to a knee injury in the opening round.
When teams with such differing styles oppose each other do battle, the winner will be the team which is able to more impose their type of play on the other. In two of their wins over the Grizzlies this season the Thunder scored over their season average in points. In their one loss they scored only 87. To look at it simply, if the Thunder can score in the hundreds in any of the games there is a good chance they will win. In order for the Grizzlies to advance in the NBA playoffs, they must bang the ball inside and hurry back in transition to stop the Thunder from feasting on the fast-break.
If either team has the edge in momentum it is the Grizzlies, who come into the post-season winning five in a row and seven of their last nine games. They are also 33-13 since center Marc Gasol returned from injury in January. The Thunder are 5-4 in their last nine games.
There are too many factors in favor of the Oklahoma City Thunder to see them losing to the Memphis Grizzlies in this first-round NBA playoff series. The Thunder are averaging more than 10 more points per game than Memphis and still have a better-than-average defense. The Grizzlies are tough on defense, but with a vulnerable offense, that defense will need to be in top form throughout the series. OKC has the added incentive of facing a team which eliminated them last year. In the end, Aesop says “slow and steady wins the race.” That was fable, this is fact: Oklahoma City in six games.
Commentary by Chuck Podhaisky