The morale in Oklahoma City couldn't be lower. Kevin Durant has missed the past two games with a sprained big toe injury. The Thunder have gone 1-1 without their star, including an embarrassing loss to the New York Knicks. Many fans are calling for more roster changes, citing the Thunder's collectively terrible three point percentages. Other fans are calling for the firing of Coach Brooks, whose worthiness has been debated for as long as he's been in the spotlight.
Thus, a win tonight against the extremely strong Memphis Grizzlies would do wonders for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Of course, winning in the Grindhouse is no easy task. The Thunder have met the Grizzlies in the playoffs during three of the past four seasons, and all of the series have been incredibly competitive. The Thunder have won two of the playoff series and come off looking as the generally superior team. Simply put, OKC has the rim protection to deal with Randolph and Gasol on most nights, while the Thunder are generally athletic enough to get it done at the rim on the offensive end. Neither team ever shoots particularly well, though a defensive lapse could get an individual player to heat up and take over a game.
Of course, this year's matchup has a number of new variables thrown into the mix. On the Grizzlies' end, they've done their part to beef up the roster. In from the Celtics has come former Thunder star Jeff Green. Green is no longer considered a viable leader for an NBA offense, but his skillset has slotted in perfectly with Memphis. Uncle Jeff's ability to attack the basket, post up mismatches, and shoot corner threes has really helped out the Grizzlies on numerous occasions. Green's best game as a Grizzly probably came against the Magic, whom are egregiously undersized at small forward.
In the past, the Thunder haven't really had to worry about whom the Grizzlies were playing at small forward. Tayshaun Prince was long a shadow of his former self, and could barely be relied upon to make mid-range jumpers. Now, Jeff Green gives Memphis more scoring options, as well as a defensive presence. Assuming KD is good to go tonight (he went through shootaround today), he should match up directly against his old teammate. Here's the head-to-head numbers for KD and Green:
And, should Tony Allen get the chance to guard KD, here's their head-to-head numbers:
In other words, the news isn't good for KD. He's certainly succeeded against both of these players on separate occasions, but has generally struggled compared to his career averages. Considering that Durant is coming off on injury, it's unlikely that he'll be able to shoulder the team's offensive load tonight.
That means there will be a ton of responsibility put on Serge Ibaka. Historically, Ibaka has been the dealbreaker. As long as he can avoid foul trouble, his presence at the rim and floor-spacing mid-range shot could fuel another Thunder victory. Ibaka's been in a huge shooting slump as of last though, netting only 37% of his shots over the past 5 games. If he's unable to contribute offensively tonight, the Thunder won't have a chance....
Unless, of course, someone on the Thunder bench decides to heat up. People forget that the Grizzlies have never really had to deal with Anthony Morrow or Dion Waiters off of OKC's bench before. Plus, the Thunder still have Reggie Jackson (though that could change any minute). Jackson has feasted and famined against Memphis before, posting both a two point game and a 32 point game in last year's playoffs.
I haven't talked a ton about the Westbrook and Conley matchup, but it is important. Both players are able to force each other into lower percentages than they generally shoot, and both of these players are already streaky shooters. This means that both players will attack the rim whenever they get the chance, and shoot around screens whenever their opponent decides to go under one. Westbrook is generally the superior offensive force, but Conley will hit clutch shots and Westbrook will have bad nights.
Really, I think that there's no way tonight's game doesn't go down to the wire, unless KD pulls out. The Thunder might get off to a slow start due to the new presence of Jeff Green and Roberson's lack of offense. However, the bench defense of Perk/Collison and bench scoring of Waiters, Morrow, and Jackson should get OKC back into it. When crunch time rolls around, I believe that the Thunder's ability to stay defensively sound is key. If they go too small or play a non-scoring Jackson/Waiters, I could see Memphis taking advantage and winning. On the other hand, if Brooks stays big, I see OKC pulling out the W. I see the latter as more likely.
If you need one last piece of evidence for a Thunder victory, look to the matchup earlier this season. OKC almost got it done while getting significant minutes from Sebastian Telfair, Lance Thomas, and Jeremy Lamb. Sure, those guys are all gone, but Reggie Jackson shot 45% while OKC's bigs held Randolph and Gasol to sub 45% nights. If those OKC Thunder could take Memphis down to the wire, certainly these OKC Thunder can do the same and win.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 95, Memphis Grizzlies 94.
What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!
|2014-15 NBA Season Game 47|
|January 31st, 2015|
|The Grindhouse, Memphis, Tennessee|
|7:00 PM Central Standard Time|
|TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network South|
|Injury Report: Mike Conley (Probable), Kevin Durant (Questionable), Vince Carter, Jarnell Stokes, Mitch McGary (Out)|
|This Season's Matchups: Nov 7 (L 91-89)|
|Russell Westbrook||PG||Mike Conley, Jr.|
|Andre Roberson||SG||Courtney Lee|
|Kevin Durant||SF||Uncle Jeff Green|
|Serge Ibaka||PF||Zach Randolph|
|Steven Adams||C||Marc Gasol|