Five numbers to set the stage as the Oklahoma City Thunder (31-25) takes on the Memphis Grizzlies (18-36) in Oklahoma City tonight.
The Thunder’s Net Rating when Paul George and Steven Adams share the court without Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Andre Roberson this season, meaning they’ve been outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions. As a point of comparison, the Sacramento Kings have the worst net rating in the league with -9.4 for the season. Roberson’s season is finished and Russ and Melo are both GTD, game-time decisions, today with ankle injuries. That’s not a knock on PG and Adams; in the reverse case, when Russ and Melo play without PG, Adams, or Roberson, they post a net rating of -7.8; better, but still the net rating of a lottery team. The Thunder’s problem is they have a weak bench consisting of young players, one-dimensional guys, and veterans past their primes. There’s enough on the bench to tread water for a few minutes while one or two of the fab four rest, but usually not enough to sustain for 48 minutes, even against a team as bad as the Lakers, as was the case Thursday night.
Teams within 7 games of each other in the Western Conference playoff standings. The Spurs sit in 3rd at 35-22, while the Jazz looks up from the 10th spot at 27-28. The Thunder are in the middle of the pack, only 3.5 games behind the Spurs, which would secure them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, they are also only 3.5 games ahead of 10th place, where they would miss the playoffs entirely. Losing Robes hurts, and playing without Westbrook and Melo is tough, but the Thunder need to start winning again, and quickly, just to stay afloat in this crowded playoff race.
The Grizzlies have posted a dreadful -8.2 net rating over their last 10 games and are 2-8 during that stretch. They have no hope of making the playoffs and every reason to want to tank and improve their draft pick. If ever there was a game for the Thunder to go into short-handed, it’s this one. There’s one catch, however: Tyreke Evans
Evans sat out the last 5 games for the Grizzlies, all of which they lost. He was perfectly healthy, but Memphis was looking to trade him for a first round pick and did not want to risk an injury. When no suitable offer materialized, Memphis elected to keep Evans and not lower their asking price. In the long-term that’s going to hurt the team, since the Grizz only have a mid-level exception to offer, they will likely lose Evans for nothing in the off-season. In the meantime, the Grizzlies got back their second best player this season. Despite their general awfulness without Mike Conley, the Grizzlies have posted a net rating of +0.8 while Evans is putting up 19.5 points on 45% shooting and 5 assists nightly. Without Evans, the Grizzlies stink; with him, they’re at least average. For OKC to win this one, they must control Evans.
Fifteen point seven percent of Memphis’ possessions end with a turnover, a bottom 5 mark in the league. OKC, of course, is the best team in the league at forcing turnovers. Defense wins championships - it also wins games where two of your 4 best players are hurt. If Russ and Melo do miss this game, the Thunder don’t need guys like Ray Felton or Alex Abrines to become heroes and have career scoring nights. They need guys like Josh Huestis, Jerami Grant, and Patrick Patterson to step up defensively alongside PG and Adams and force turnovers that generate easy buckets on the other end.
With Mike Conley out, Marc Gasol, #33, is clearly the best player on the Grizzlies this season, and he played like it the last time these two teams faced off. The Thunder eventually won by 1 in overtime, but it was a battle featuring Gasol’s 22 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists on and 8 for 17 shooting performance. Stopping Gasol is the key to winning this one, but it won’t be easy as the big Spaniard can beat you in many ways. He can move out to the 3-point line on pick and pops, he’s one of the best passing big men in the league, and of course, he can score in the paint as well. Steven Adams will have his hands full, but the Big Kiwi is up to the challenge. In their match-up on December 9th, Adams answered Gasol’s big night with 21 points and 9 rebounds of his own.