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Thunder vs. Grizzlies preview: Without Durant, Oklahoma City will have to grit and grind

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Without their star's impact on offense and defense, the Thunder could be in for some play-our-way payback from the Grizzlies.

Where They At: Oklahoma City Thunder

The number one concern for the Thunder has popped back onto the screen, interrupting a long stretch almost completely devoid of injuries. Health has been as big a factor for the Thunder as player or coaching performance has been over the last few years, and Kevin Durant’s toe sprain is one of those dings that may be no big deal in a vacuum but a little nerve-wracking for those suffering from KD-foot-injury-PTSD.

The Thunder will likely be without their star tonight; we were reminded just how ordinary they can be without Durant when they lost to the Sacramento Kings at home on Monday. Durant’s return from his earlier injury this season correlated with improved defense by the Thunder, and it’s no fluke that his absence on Monday dovetailed with a horrific defensive performance from the team. A big, easy chunk of the schedule has opened up, but if Durant and/or the Thunder reserves don’t get right soon, the team will be fending off the Los Angeles Clippers for the third seed instead of chasing the San Antonio Spurs for number two.

Where They At: Memphis Grizzlies

Since being eviscerated by the smaller Thunder lineup on December 8th, the Grizzlies have answered grit and grind eulogies with mediocre play. They’re 7-7 in that 14-game stretch with some decent wins over the Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and Miami Heat sprinkled in. As has been well documented, the Grizzlies have been forced to play less and less of their gritty style of late (Zach Randolph isn't starting anymore, for instance), and while their offensive pieces aren’t great, they’ve had an uptick on that end of the court.

The Western Conference has been bad enough that this will probably turn into a fairly standard year for Memphis—decent record, something like the sixth or seventh seed, and an early exit from the playoffs—unless they decide to hit reset on the roster in the middle of the season.

The Matchup

The Grizzlies still play very slow, and they're not made to exploit the Thunder defense with the same degree of hyperactivity as the Kings had (although, it was these Thunder that gave the Grizzlies one of their best offensive performances in a looong time earlier this season). The one guy who has upped his play to help calm the Memphis storm has been Matt Barnes, a noted Thunder hater. He’s coming off a terrible shooting game and that creepy Derek Fisher dustup suspension, but he could be a factor guarding Anthony Morrow (Durant’s likely starting replacement) very physically and hitting some threes on the other end of the court.

The Thunder rarely hurt for points, but neutralizing Morrow and/or Enes Kanter by covering them up on offense or exploiting them on defense could lead to some play-our-way payback, sucking the Thunder into a slugfest more suited to the Grizzlies’ strengths. If Durant sits (he didn’t practice yesterday), I think the Grizzlies give the Thunder another disappointing L.

Prediction: Grizzlies 100, Thunder 97

2015-16 NBA Season Game #
@
19-17
(Won 1)

24-11
(Lost 1)
January 6th, 2015
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City
8:30 PM Central Standard Time
TV: ESPN, Fox Sports Oklahoma
Injury Report: Kevin Durant (DTD), Brandan Wright (Out), Jordan Adams (Doubtful)
This Season's Matchups: Dec. 8 (W 125-88), Nov. 16 (L 114-122)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Mike Conley
Andre Roberson SG Courtney Lee
Anthony Morrow SF Matt Barnes
Serge Ibaka PF Jeff Green
Steven Adams C Marc Gasol