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2013-2014 Game 50 Preview: Thunder Face Refreshed Grizzlies

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Will Conley's absence upset the competitive balance tonight?

No mercy.
No mercy.
William Bennett Berry
2013-2014 NBA Season
Won 6

Lost 1
February 3rd, 2014
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM/640 AM), 92.9 FM/680 AM ESPN
Injury Report: Russell Westbrook (Out), Tony Allen (Questionable), Mike Conley (Questionable), Quincy Pondexter (Out),
Previous Matchups: Dec 11th, Jan 14th (Season Series is Tied 1-1)
Probable Starters
Nick Calathes (Mike Conley?) PG Reggie Jackson
Courtney Lee (Tony Allen?) SG Thabo Sefolosha
Tayshaun Prince SF Kevin Durant
Zach Randolph PF Serge Ibaka
Marc Gasol C Kendrick Perkins
2013/14 Advanced Stats
92.2 (30th) Pace 97.8 (T-8th)
103.1 (17th) ORtg 107.6 (5th)
102.8 (T-13th) DRtg 99.2 (3rd)

Had the Thunder not completely fallen apart and lost to the Wizards on Saturday, this would be a matchup between the league's two hottest teams. The Thunder had won 10 straight before that loss, and claimed victory over some of the league's top teams. Memphis, on the other hand, has been playing with a nearly healthy roster for the first time all year. As long as Randolph, Gasol, and Conley are clicking, this team can beat anybody in the league.

Of course, Mike Conley likely won't be a piece of that party tonight. He left a Friday night contest against the Timberwolves with an ankle injury, and did not return. He's currently listed as "day-to-day", but he was listed as out for a week when he was originally diagnosed. Starting shooting guard and noted defensive boss Tony Allen is also questionable with a hand injury. Should he not be able to play, he will have missed three straight matchups against the Thunder.

I've talked about this Thunder team facing this Grizzlies team for about four years, and it never gets old watching these two teams play. The only problem with this matchup is that it's hard to write about what's going to happen. When both of these teams are at full strength, they always play down to the wire. It's rare for one to have an inherent advantage over the other one, and there's a highly complex system of checks and balances keeping this game from swinging in any particular direction. That's why you see fantastic writers like J.A. Sherman commenting on what seems to be minutia after a game against these guys. The game's just going to come down to who does the little things best, who can manage their possessions during critical times, and who has the most heart.

Of course, there's always the potential for the competitive balance to be thrown off by an injury, exhaustion, or some other mitigating factor. Marc Gasol's injury caused the Thunder to blow out the Grizzlies earlier this season, and the absence of Mike Conley tonight may achieve that same effect. It's hard to say how well the Grizzlies can do without him, because there just isn't a whole lot of data to look up. Conley's only missed three games this season, with two of those absences coming when the team was also missing Gasol. Furthermore, Jerryd Bayless was playing in place of Conley during those two losses, and he's no longer with the team. His other absence came this Sunday against the Bucks, and the Bucks might as well be the Washington Generals right now, so the game is impossible to glean anything from.

Should Conley and Allen not be able to go, Nick Calathes and Courtney Lee will be stepping into their places. Courtney Lee has only seen the Thunder once before in a Grizzlies uniform, but the venture was fruitful. He had a season-high 24 points on 9 of 15 shooting, and you can watch his highlights here. His points mostly came from his ability to work on the weak side of the ball and his quick first step that enabled him to get around the slow-footed Fisher and Sefolosha. It's easy to see Lee replicating that performance tonight, so I hope that the Thunder will be smart enough to throw Jackson or Lamb on him if Sefolosha can't handle him. On the other hand, Nick Calathes has been downright unremarkable, playing small minutes and posting small stats. He hadn't really had much success on the NBA level until his 22 point explosion Saturday night against the Bucks. You can watch video of it here, and from that video it's pretty obvious that Nick is mostly an off-ball scorer. Most of his points came when he got open space in the flow of the offensive set, and it doesn't appear that he can do much to score in an iso situation. Also, his career 1.9 assist to turnover ratio should tell you that he's more of a combo guard than anything.

Given this information, will Lee and Calathes be able to lead their team to an epic finish against the Thunder? Maybe. I do think that Lee's quickness gives him a definite ace in the hole, but it's hard to say whether he'll get enough open opportunities without Conley there to draw perimeter defense and move the ball. The Grizzlies were able to rack up assists across the board without Conley against the Bucks, but playing without a true point guard on the roster is always a risk. Furthermore, Calathes' defense against Reggie Jackson is unproven, and there's a chance that this could be the game where RJ exits his 6 game sub-45% offensive funk. The bench provides some exciting intrigue as well, with James Johnson attempting to revitalize his career against the upstart Jeremy Lamb.

But really, while guard play might determine the outcome of this game, the focus is going to be on the post. And how things turn out there is going to be unpredictable. The Grizzlies will have a very strong offensive attack, while the Thunder have an array of defensive heavy hitters that have had variable success in shutting down the Grizzlies. Perk, Collison, and Ibaka have all had their nights against Randolph or Gasol, and how well any of them do is really up to the refs, the pace of the game, and the Grizzlies' ability to make difficult shots. Steven Adams is a wildcard, but if there was a place to make your mark as a big man, it would be here.

Anyway, I'm going to predict a Thunder victory tonight because they're at home, and have had a small chance to rest after a brutal stretch of basketball. Some might be concerned about the Thunder's inability to put it together against the Wizards, but the Thunder have run into that wall before (see: the Jazz loss), and it's not insurmountable. The Thunder have to simply continue to move the ball, stop settling for threes, and push the pace. As long as they do that and manage their possessions properly, they can beat any team in the NBA. Even Grit n' Grind.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 97, Memphis Grizzlies 90.

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