The Oklahoma City Thunder avoided what would have been one of the biggest meltdowns in NBA history by beating the Houston Rockets 103-94 in Game 6 last night.
After going up 3-0 vs. the Rockets, Houston came back to win the next two leaving everyone questioning how good this Thunder team was without Russell Westbrook.
It was a tough test that Houston presented but the Thunder passed. What’s ahead will be more of the unknown.
The Memphis Grizzlies dismantled the Los Angeles Clippers in six games. After losing the first two in LA, they came back to win four in a row led by Zach Randolph who averaged 25-9 in those four games.
The Grizzlies are starting to look like the Memphis team that knocked out the Spurs in the first round two years ago. Fittingly, they will again see the Thunder in the second round.
Who is the favorite in this series?
The Thunder would of course been favored if they had Westbrook. They haven’t exactly not missed a beat since his injury so a lot has changed. The Grizzlies looked very good in the last four games too so you maybe give them a little advantage momentum-wise.
I actually think this matchup vs. Memphis is better for the Thunder than Houston was in a way. The Thunder simply always had huge defensive problems against small lineups this season and never was that the case more than vs. Houston.
Against Memphis, the Thunder will see the traditional lineups with two bigs at a time. This means Kendrick Perkins will be relevant again and Serge Ibaka shouldn’t be getting lost on defense as much.
But the fact of the matter is that the Grizzlies are a much better team than Houston is. They are leagues better defensively and the problems Oklahoma City had on offense vs. Houston will be magnified tenfold vs. Memphis.
The Grizzlies actually have some decent options to use on Kevin Durant too. Tayshaun Prince is old but experienced and long and has always been sound defensively. Then of course there’s Tony Allen who doesn’t have to be concerned with Westbrook anymore.
The Grizzlies have the bodies to match up with Durant better than probably anyone. If they are able to play him kind of straight up and not have to help as much as Houston did, the Thunder will be stuck with their role players trying to create shots, which they haven’t been very good at.
Let’s not forget that Houston gave the Thunder so much trouble despite Durant playing out of this world. KD averaged 35.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game in the last four games without Westbrook. He also shot 51.1 percent from the field and averaged 11.5 free throw attempts per game.
It’s going to be hard for Durant to put up those kinds of numbers vs. Memphis. The pace will certainly be slower and the Grizzlies should slow him down more than Houston did.
Some Thunder role players stepped up last night. Kevin Martin was huge in the first half where he scored 21 of his 25 points. Reggie Jackson has come on strong in Westbrook’s absence too. Derek Fisher still can’t seem to miss.
This trend will need to continue more than ever vs. Memphis for the Thunder to have a shot. OKC will really need role players stepping up every game too because Memphis will be good enough to beat the Thunder even if OKC gives them a good punch.
Defense will be the most important thing for the Thunder. Even without Westbrook, they are still a team that is built to handle a team like the Grizzlies. Without Rudy Gay, Memphis may have a very difficult time scoring against the Thunder. I don’t think anyone expects otherwise.
Let’s also not forget that the Thunder have homecourt advantage in this series. They did lost at home in Game 5 vs. Houston and the Grizzlies didn’t have homecourt against the Clippers and still won. So who knows how big this will end up being. Both OKC and Memphis have proven they can win on the road in the playoffs.
So let’s go back to the original question: who is the favorite in this series?
The Thunder have the best player, Memphis has the next two. Whoever steps up as numbers 4-7 will tell us a lot.
I honestly think this series is a toss-up at this point, one of those series where we just say it will go seven games and we don’t know who will win. Maybe I’m being a homer and the Grizzlies are the clear-cut favorites but I think the Thunder can still win this one.
The biggest thing is that we still don’t know so much about the Thunder post-Westbrook. We don’t know if they will continue to improve offensively, if Jackson can keep playing so well, if Martin/Ibaka will wake up, if Fisher will still shoot over 50 percent from three. We just don’t know so much.
But we will soon find out. Game 1 will be tomorrow at noon on ABC.