Playoff Preview: Thunder-Grizzlies
USA Today Sports
The Memphis Grizzlies are the perfect “dark horse” team of the season. They’ve flown under the radar all year long. With injuries to Marc Gasol and Tony Allen, they’ve dipped below their usual production on defense. Dave Joerger oddly installed a running offense to start but has since righted the ship when realizing that, maybe, Zach Randolph is probably more comfortable bulldozing his man rather than running around the perimeter. Maybe.
The Grit n Grind Grizz then acquired Courtney Lee to provide consistent offense and an ability to create something resembling space to help Gasol and Z-Bo. Nick Calathes and James Johnson has kept them afloat during the injury-prone portion of the schedule and function as depth and potential playoff stars given the right opportunity. Mike Conley Jr. is as underrated and nifty as ever on offense and defense – rare for a point guard. Tayshaun Prince is old and creaky but the combination of Tony Allen and him are lengthy reminders that, yes, this defense is as good as it ever was. These Memphis Grizzlies are the perfect sleeper contending team of the entire NBA playoffs. There’s just one problem.
Kevin Durant, after years of languishing behind LeBron James in the eyes of the public, finally took over as the MVP and best player in the world (well, he at least made it a debate for a couple months). Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, and Kendrick Perkins are all healthy and ready to rediscover the defense that ravaged through last year’s regular season and causes the San Antonio Spurs problems even Gregg Popovich can’t solve. The former is so good he even overshadows Durant in conversations about the Thunder’s ability to win a championship.
So even though the Grizzlies present a near-perfect blend of defense, passing, and post-game tempo to slow down any type of high-flying offense, the Thunder will probably win in a grueling 5-6 game series. This isn’t what the Grizzlies were hoping for, especially when reloading with a shooter like Mike Miller, who has flown under the radar despite playing well and staying remarkably healthy. The Grizz would probably be favored and feel good about themselves against any other seed beside the two they were forced between choosing with their win in the last regular game against the Dallas Mavericks.
But before bemoaning the Grizz’s fate, here’s to the return of the Thunder. After a one-year absence (and loss to this same Memphis team), Westbrook is now back and ready to set Basketball Twitter ablaze, take head-scratching 18-footers with 20 seconds left on the shot clock, soar over seven-foot centers for rebounds, and most importantly, celebrate every made three like it’s his last. And on the other side of the spectrum, the silent and smooth viciousness that embodies Durant’s jumper threaten to tear apart the very foundation that makes this rough-and-tumble Memphis defense so good. Durant couldn’t do it last postseason by himself but the dichotomy between the two superstars is what makes this team a NBA Finals favorite.
Make no mistake, this is very much a superstar’s game and for all of Memphis’ peskiness and Chicago Bulls-esque love affair with the media and writers, this is all about Durant and Westbrook’s trailblazing path to the championship. Memphis sure picked the wrong time and place to become the perfect dark horse.