By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor
Oklahoma City Thunder: 2nd Seed, West (59-23)
Memphis Grizzlies: 7th Seed, West (50-32)
(SportsNetwork.com) - It was just last season the Oklahoma City Thunder were unceremoniously bounced from the second round of the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies.
They will have their chance for vengeance in the first round one year later.
"It's going to be a tough but fun series," OKC star Kevin Durant said. "We have a lot of history with these guys. We're looking forward to getting the opportunity to play for a championship."
The Thunder earned the second-best record in not only the Western Conference, but the whole NBA. Along the way, they had to deal with injuries to All-Star guard Russell Westbrook, who missed last season's series versus the Grizz with a knee problem, and veteran starters Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins.
Durant more than handled the load. He will most assuredly win the MVP this season, supplanting LeBron James as Durant won yet another scoring title.
"Guys had to step up and I think we did a good job of fighting through it all," Durant said. "That shows the type of organization, the type of coaching staff and team that we have. It's been a fun season and up and down like any other season."
Memphis overcame a hideous start to make the postseason once again. Injuries hit the Grizzlies hard as well. They were without All-Defensive guard Tony Allen for a long stretch, but the main setback occurred when they lost All- Star center Marc Gasol with a left knee problem.
Once the reigning Defensive Player of the Year returned to the lineup, the Grizzlies clicked. The Grizzlies went 33-13 in games he played after the injury.
Their frontline is sensational. Aside from Gasol, who averaged 14.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 1.88 blocks, Zach Randolph continued to be a double-double machine. He posted marks of 17.4 points and 10.1 rebounds while tying for the fourth-most double-doubles in the league.
However, the real star that emerged this season was point guard Mike Conley. He averaged 17.2 ppg and 6.0 apg all the while playing stellar defense, the hallmark of the Memphis Grizzlies.
It all finally came together for Memphis over the final two games of the season. The Grizzlies' road victory over the Phoenix Suns in the penultimate game earned them a playoff berth. Their win over the Dallas Mavericks in the finale got them the seventh seed.
"Getting 50 wins is something you want on your resume as a player, and people remember those. Those are special seasons. It's a standard, a golden standard I think," Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger said.
It will be a classic offense versus defense matchup. The Thunder were the fifth-best offensive team this season, while the Grizzlies ranked third in opponents' scoring.
Flip the script and the advantage swings to Oklahoma City. The Thunder finished a respectable 12th in defensive scoring and an impressive third in opponents' field-goal percentage. Memphis ranked 27th in scoring.
But statistics don't mean much come playoff time.
And, for the third time in four seasons, the Thunder will face the Grizzlies in the postseason. OKC dispatched the Grizz in the second round following the 2010-11 season, but Memphis evened the score last season.
That makes this series the rubber match.
"It will be a physical matchup against Memphis," Westbrook said. "They're a great team. We just have to go in there and play our game."
BACKCOURT: Westbrook has made three All-Star teams, but this season was all about getting healthy enough for the playoffs. He missed just two games at the start of the season and then a few weeks just after Christmas with another knee ailment. Head coach Scott Brooks rested Westbrook as much as possible and it worked. Westbrook averaged 21.8 ppg and 6.9 assists. He is the best pull-up jump-shooter in the league, gets to the foul line and can impact a game defensively. Sefolosha is there for defense, although he's not an embarrassment on the offensive side. He's a decent 3-point shooter, but if offense is what the Thunder need, Sefolosha would probably be on the bench.
Conley has quietly become one of the league's best point guards. He's a two- way threat who fits perfectly in the Grizzlies defense-first mindset. Conley shot 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from long range. His matchup against Westbrook is critical if the Grizzlies have any chance at the upset. Courtney Lee was acquired during the season and provides a scoring and 3-point threat Allen never did. (Allen will still see plenty of time because of his defense.) Lee managed 9.6 ppg and 37 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
FRONTCOURT: Durant may not be the best player in the league. That honor still belongs to James, but Durant will be named the MVP and he deserves it. Durant's numbers this season were ludicrous. He averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists. He shoots 50 percent from the field, 39 percent from behind the 3-point line and 87 percent from the foul line. He's a superstar and the league's preeminent scorer. Serge Ibaka is woefully underrated. He averaged 15.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and finished second in blocks at 2.70 per game. Ibaka even shot 38 percent from 3-point range. Perkins is a big body and they'll be needed against Memphis' massive frontline.
Randolph and Gasol comprise the best big-man combination in the league. Both are gifted passers and facilitators, skilled scorers on the blocks, adroit jump-shooters. Both can even beat defenses off the dribble. They are huge on top of being talented and both are strong defenders and rebounders. How Ibaka, Perkins and rookie Steven Adams handle this duo will go a long way to determining the outcome of this series. Tayshaun Prince has been in the league forever, and he's clearly on the decline, but his length and defense are still needed to combat Durant.
EDGE: THUNDER (slightly)
BENCH: The Thunder boast a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Reggie Jackson. He averaged 13.1 ppg and played the bulk of minutes in Westbrook's absence. Caron Butler has been a revelation in his short stay in Oklahoma City, scoring double-digits. Derek Fisher can become the player who appeared in the most NBA playoff games. Nick Collison is a grunt in the best possible sense of the word. Jeremy Lamb wasn't used as much later in the season, but can still score. Adams will be needed to battle the Memphis bigs. This is a solid unit, ranking 14th in bench scoring.
Memphis finished 10th in second-unit scoring, aided by Mike Miller, who made it through an entire season. He's still a great spot-up shooter, who contributed heavily to the Miami Heat title runs and might be handy if the Grizz twin towers get double-teamed. Allen is the best defensive guard in the league and James Johnson is a welcome alternative from the offensively pathetic Prince. Kosta Koufos is a big-time backup big man. Ed Davis is serviceable and Nick Calathes became a bit of a revelation as a reserve point guard.
COACHING: Brooks is a former Coach of the Year and is 29-25 as a head man in the playoffs. His team loves him and he understands this group very well being in his sixth season at the helm.
Joerger rallied this group and after a bumpy start, got his players back on track. This is his first head-coaching gig in the postseason, but he was an assistant on the Grizzlies team that went to the Western Conference Finals last season.
PREDICTION: This one has the makings of another epic battle between these two teams. Memphis comes into the postseason hot with five straight wins, but OKC won three of four this season versus the Grizzlies. The Conley/Westbrook bout and the Thunder bigs versus the Memphis bigs are two critical matchups. If Memphis can contain Durant, which is a huge question mark considering no one seemingly can, and handle themselves in the other two crucial clashes, an upset is possible. Memphis is that sort of team no one wants to play in the postseason. They are physical and tested, two great aspects for playoff success. But, can Durant be stopped on his spectacular season?
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: THUNDER in SEVEN
04/18 13:49:43 ET