Oklahoma City and Memphis have waged some terrific battles over the past several years and the two teams have a fun rivalry as both are still fairly new contenders in the big picture of the NBA.
The two teams begin their first round playoffs series at 8:30 p.m. Saturday night at The Peake, and it's sure to be another great installment of what has become a great matchup. This will be the third time in the last four years the two teams have met in the playoffs. OKC took the series, 4-3 in 2011, while Memphis ousted the Thunder in five games last season.
"There's definitely a familiarity there," Thunder forward Nick Collison said about the matchup. "I think both teams feel more comfortable playing against each other in how they're going to approach guarding certain things. In terms of rivalry, I think all these playoff games are extremely important. They're always emotional. Any matchup you have in the playoffs, particularly later you get in the series, is going to seem like a big deal."
Familiarity is what makes this series so intriguing. Here's a refresher on what to expect from the Grizzlies.
Breaking Down the Grizzlies
This year's Grizzlies team has been a bit unlike past Memphis teams. New coach Dave Joerger hasn't changed much of the culture Lionel Hollins created, and the Grizzlies have quietly put together another excellent season. A year ago, the Grizzlies were second in the NBA in defensive rating at 97.4, but this season, Memphis has slipped to seventh, with a 102.1 rating. Memphis is third in points allowed at 94.6 points per game, but their pace makes that number more impressive than it is. The Grizzlies are still right in the middle of the pack on offense, ranking 17th in offensive rating and averaging 96.1 points per game, 27th in the league.
Regardless of the changes from year-to-year, the Grizzlies' identity is still centered on defense and a slow-paced, efficient offense.
-Mike Conley- 17.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 6.0 apg, 45/36.1/82
-Courtney Lee- 11.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.7 apg, 47.6/34.5/90
-Tayshaun Prince- 6.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.6 apg, 40.7/29/57
-Zach Randolph- 17.4 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 46.7/10/74
-Marc Gasol- 14.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.6 apg, 47.3/18.2/77
Key Reserves: Tony Allen, Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos, James Johnson
The Memphis bench will be hurting at the point guard position as backup Nick Calathes has been suspended for 20 games for violating the NBA Anti-Drug Policy. Calathes averaged 16.5 minutes and 4.9 points per game in the regular season.
A factor that makes Memphis a decent matchup for Oklahoma City is that the Grizzlies are not a good 3-point shooting team, nor do they take a lot of 3s. Memphis is dead last in the NBA in 3-pointers made (405, 4.9 per game) and attempted (1,147, 14 per game). The Grizzlies are middle of the pack when it comes to making them, though, hitting 35.3 percent of their 3-pointers. The Thunder have not done a good job of defending the 3-point line this season and it doesn't take a hard look at the stats to determine how important it is to the team's success.
Thunder Opponent 3-point field-goal percentage
Season: 36.1 (14th in NBA)
December (team's best month): 31.3 (3rd in the league during the month)
Wins: 34.2 (Would be 3rd in the NBA)
Losses: 39.8 (Would be 30th by two percentage points)
The Pace Battle
One of the best parts of this series is that these two teams couldn't be much more different in terms of pace. The Thunder loves to get out and run and ranks ninth in the NBA in pace. The Grizzlies are content with using the entire shot clock each possession, working for the best possible shot. Memphis ranks dead last in the NBA in pace.
Typically, the team that controls the pace wins the game between these two teams. For example, in last season's Western Conference semifinals, Memphis won the last four games of the series by scoring 100 or more points just once, and that game went to overtime. OKC managed to win Game 1, 93-91, but that is an anomaly compared to the rest of the series between the two teams.
Both teams are very good at what they do in terms of pace, so dictating pace will not come easy for the Thunder or the Grizzlies. However, whenever the paces are this different, the team that forces the other to play out of its comfort zone usually wins. That's been the theme between these two teams, anyway.
Oklahoma City's goal of returning to the NBA Finals last season was crushed by the Grizzlies in the second round of the playoffs. While disappointment was the obvious emotion, the earlier-than-expected exit also gave the Thunder a lot of positives as well.
First, it forever emphasized the importance of Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City proved this year it does not have to have Westbrook to win consistently, but in order to be the best it can possibly be and win an NBA championship, the Thunder needs Westbrook in the lineup.
Second, it expedited the development of Reggie Jackson. In that series, Jackson went from a good backup point guard to a rising star. It was because of his play in that series that led many to question early on this season whether or not the Thunder could afford to keep Jackson going forward. Jackson's play has leveled off considerably as the season has gone on, but being forced into action once Westbrook went down against Houston last season has been a great thing for the Thunder.
As for actual revenge, the Thunder will never admit it has a bone to pick with the Grizzlies, but there's no doubt OKC takes a bit more pleasure than normal in beating Memphis.