By Jay Betsill
The first round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder (2) and the Memphis Grizzlies (7) shapes up to be one of the more difficult match-ups for the higher seeded team. Last season, the Thunder were coming off an NBA Finals appearance and the top seed in the Western Conference when point guard Russell Westbrook injured his knee in the first round. The Thunder were thrown completely out of sync and would end up falling to the Grizzlies in the conference semifinals.
Now Westbrook is back — albeit following three knee surgeries in a one year span — and Kevin Durant is fresh off winning his fourth scoring title. While the Thunder did win three of the teams’ four games this season, the Grizzlies do not appear to be intimidated by the Thunder, so much that they battled the Dallas Mavericks to a 106-105 OT win in the final regular season game for the right to play Oklahoma City — or not to play the San Antonio Spurs.
The Thunder do have a distinct advantage in that Durant is by far the best player on either team and we all know that is a huge advantage in the NBA playoffs. Even though Westbrook’s health has been a big topic, Memphis is 33-13 since center Marc Gasol returned in January from his knee injury, which is a game better than the Thunder’s record over the same time frame.
It is also worth mentioning that the last time the Thunder faced Mike Miller in the playoffs, he was pouring in threes for the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals. When Miller is hot from the outside, it opens things up down low for Gasol and Zach Randolph.
The most important one-on-one matchup will likely be the battle of the point guards as Westbrook will face off against Mike Conley. The closer Conley plays to Westbrook’s level on both ends of the court will determine a multitude of factors in the series.
PREDICTION : Thunder will overcome its defensive inconsistency it has shown for the last two months of the season and win the series in six.