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Game 1 Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies

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The Playoffs have arrived. The Thunder looks to avenge last year's playoff loss to Memphis with a healthy Russell Westbrook, while the Grizzlies hope their big men can grind out the upset.

Peep this!
Peep this!
William Bennett Berry

2013-2014 NBA Pre-Season
Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)
Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23)
April 19, 2014
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
8:30 P.M. CDT
ESPN Radio, WWLS 98.1FM OKC, 1070 The Fan
Grizzly Bear Blues
Previous Meetings: Dec. 11 (W, 116-100), Jan. 14 (L, 90-87), Feb. 3 (W, 86-77), Feb. 28 (W, 113-107),

Injury Report: Memphis: Nick Calathes (Out), Mike Conley (Day-to-Day); OKC: none

Probable Starters
Mike Conley P Russell Westbrook
Courtney Lee SG Thabo Sefolosha
Tayshaun Prince SF Kevin Durant
Zach Randolph PF Serge Ibaka
Marc Gasol C Kendrick Perkins

The last playoff game that the Oklahoma City Thunder played ended with them hanging their heads while watching the Memphis Grizzlies advance to the Western Conference Finals.

That was last year, and the biggest difference, of course, was that the Thunder were without Russell Westbrook. Tonight, they get their shot at revenge against a team that seems to quickly be turning into a perennial playoff nemesis. There was last season's disappointment but, perhaps more famously, there was 2011's epic 7-game series that resulted in the Thunder taking their first-ever trip to the Western Conference finals.

Our own Kevin Yeung went into it very nicely earlier today, but the matchup is always one of two seriously contrasting styles. The Thunder, with their athleticism, are seventh in offensive efficiency compared to the Grizzlies, who rank 16th. In pace, the gap is even wider, with the Thunder (97.9) ranking ninth to Memphis's dead last (92.3).

That's simply a matter of identity though, and the Grizzlies use a slower pace to their advantage, slowing down the game and making their mark on the defensive end. Since Marc Gasol returned from injury, Memphis ranks second in defensive rating, as opposed to seventh on the season. On top of that, with Gasol in the lineup, the Grizzlies are 40-19 on the year. Simply put, the Grizzlies at full strength are as tough a matchup as it comes in the first round.

That style is what makes them a difficult playoff matchup, because of their ability to make things ugly and slow it down. Analysts love preaching how things slow down in the playoffs, and you need physical guys to handle the slower pace when games get tight and every shot matters. You won't find many big men combos better than Gasol and Zach Randolph, and they have certainly given the Thunder all they can handle in the past.

But where the Grizzlies will really try and make a difference, again as they have in the past, is in how they defend Kevin Durant. I went pretty in-depth on it following their last matchup, and a lot of what i had to say then still applies now. The Grizzlies began that game, as they did in last season's playoff matchup, with Tayshaun Prince on Durant. He has typically provided a bit of a challenge simply by using his length to bother Durant's shot. In fact, according to the SportVU series preview, during 2013-2014, Durant has shot just 19-47 (40 percent) with Prince guarding him. He's still scored 48 points, but the Grizzlies will live with that, just as they did last season, because it tends to wear down the shooter over a long series.

Where the matchup gets really interesting is in the latter stages of the game, when the Grizzlies typically deploy defensive menace/all-around annoyance Tony Allen. Allen has always bothered Durant simply by playing him ultra-aggressive off the ball, but Durant actually began to exploit that aggressiveness in the most recent matchup. He used pump fakes, and played along with the contact to draw fouls, and ultimately, Allen's old tricks ended up backfiring as they let Durant go off down the stretch.

None of that is to say any of the strategy will change. Prince/Allen is still as effective as anyone can hope to get in defending Durant, and it will be up to the Thunder's supporting cast to alleviate that extra pressure. Russell Westbrook being back is obviously the biggest help there, but Reggie Jackson will be key as well. Mike Conley has turned into a true threat at the point, and if he can play off his big men and create penetration, the Grizzlies lack of outside shooting talent will be far less of a hinderance to their offense.

The same goes for the Thunder on the offensive side, as their point guards will need to get the bigs moving in order to create more open looks. Where the Grizzlies were able to thrive in last season's series was in loading up on Durant and allowing the rest of the offense to stall around him. The SportVU preview only shows Jackson's drive numbers against Memphis this season, but even just those give the sense that the Thunder have learned to create outside of Durant. Those numbers show Jackson drove just as frequently as Conley (remember Westbrook missed two of the matchups this season, so Jackson saw more minutes in this particular matchup), but Jackson actually scored a lot more on his own.

Conley, by contrast, passed out of drives a lot more, often to his bigs, and that leads to the final key for the Thunder - guarding Gasol and Randolph. Because of Randolph tends to be more of a traditional post player and Gasol tends to pass more and play off the pick-and-roll, the Thunder have used Ibaka on Gasol and Perkins on Randolph. Gasol has still found success, shooting 11-18 with Ibaka on him, but Randolph has had more trouble, going just 6-15 with Perkins guarding him.

All of this, of course, is looking at past matchups, and with all of the injuries to both teams over the past two seasons, it's hard to get a real gauge on how these teams will match up now that both are completely healthy. That most previous matchup may be the best gauge, but even in that one the Thunder was without Perkins. Still, it played out like most of the games in this matchup have, with one team looking better for the majority of the game, only to have another furiously come back in the fourth quarter, and then for one to outexecute in the final moments.

That's largely what this game and this series will come down to. Memphis is going to create physical problems, and they're going to make some people angry, but the Thunder, with a healthy lineup, should still be able to run on them, assuming they can limit the offensive rebounds and force some turnovers.

I keep going back to that last matchup, but I think it is a great gauge of how Kevin Durant has learned to play against this Grizzlies team. The more aggressive they get, the more he is able to get them out of position and create easier looks not just for himself, but his teammates. On top of that, no matter how dominant Gasol and Randolph can be inside, the Thunder really isn't all that bad at defending the paint. In fact, even with what many have seen as a defensive slump in the second-half, the Thunder still ranks fifth in defensive efficiency. That's largely thanks to Serge Ibaka, who is third in the league at opponent field goal percentage at the rim. Perkins is up there too, and the two of them seem to have at least found a way to slow the big men enough to the point where they won't beat them by themselves.

That means it comes to to the rest of the Grizzlies to come up with some big-time shot making, and it's hard to see how a team like Memphis will find enough shooting success to outgun the young Thunder.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 102, Memphis Grizzlies, 89