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Game of the Week: Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder

US Presswire

US Presswire

This is a big one. This game matches Oklahoma City’s league-best offense against Memphis’ league-best defense.

It’s as big as a January game gets. Let’s get into it.

Key Players

I’ve already poured out my love for Marc Gasol in our All-Star roundtable, so I’ll focus on the other Grizzlies big man, Zach Randolph. If you watch Z-Bo under the boards, you understand why he’s such a strong rebounder. He’s as physical as anyone in the league down low. Defensively, he’s a great compliment to Marc Gasol. They remind me of the Spurs’ pairing of David Robinson and Dennis Rodman, with Gasol playing the Robinson role of covering the back line, and Randolph vacuuming up the rebounds like Rodman. Randolph isn’t quite back to the level he was playing at before his injury-shortened 2011-12 campaign, but he’s rebounding and defending as well as he ever has in a Grizzlies uniform. Oklahoma City had mixed success against Randolph in a losing effort in November. They limited his activity on the offensive glass, but Randolph had his way down low, getting half of his field goal attempts in the restricted area, where he finished 5-7. Oklahoma’s bigs will need to show more muscle to win this game.

Russell Westbrook is far from overlooked despite playing in the shadow of megastar Kevin Durant. He’s responsible for just as much of the offense as Durant, and though he’s not nearly as effective a scorer, he’s the primary distributor, especially since the departure of James Harden. Together with Thabo Sefalosha, he’s part of the one of the most fearsome defensive backcourts in the league. On offense, it’s disappointing that Westbrook hasn’t improved his shooting. He’s attempting more threes this season, and shooting his best rate from there, but his 33% success rate still doesn’t make it a great option. He’s also one of the more turnover-prone players in the league. In the loss against Memphis, Westbrook ran the offense well and took care of the ball, but he seriously struggled, shooting just 32% from the field. But most of Westbrook’s shots are unguardable, make-or-miss affairs. He’s just as liable to go off as he is to struggle.

What to Watch For

A big reason Memphis is such a dominant defensive team is that they force so many turnovers. Mike Conley and Tony Allen are the best backcourt in the league and forcing turnovers, ranking third and fifth respectively in steal percentage. The Thunder are one of the most turnover-prone teams in the league. Kendrick Perkins leads the league in turnover percentage. He doesn’t actually have the ball that much, but to have a player on the court who turns it over almost a quarter of the time he has the ball doesn’t make that much sense, even less so against a ballhawking team like the Grizzlies.

The Grizzlies don’t have many weaknesses on defense. If you had to pick one, it’s that they’re merely above average at keeping teams off the free-throw line. It’s a tiny crack, but one the Thunder are the best in the league at exploiting. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are so explosive that even when they’re not shooting well, they can muscle their way into efficient outings by getting to the free-throw line. While Marc Gasol has been brilliant on defense, he’s among the more foul-prone players in the league. The Grizzlies will have a hard time making up for his absence if he gets into foul trouble against the Thunder, especially after trading Marreese Speights.

Why Else Should I Watch?

If you’re not excited to watch this game, don’t even watch basketball anymore.

How to Watch

TNT, Thursday, 8 p.m. eastern

League Pass Bonus Game

Houston Rockets at Denver Nuggets, Wednesday, 9 p.m. eastern. Two of the fastest-paced, evenly-matched teams in the league. This is why League Pass exists.

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