clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Preview: Playoffs Loom in Thunder vs. Grizzlies Matchup

Two struggling teams go head-to-head in a matchup that has major Western Conference playoff implications. Interesting storylines and matchups on the court should make for a classic Friday night thriller in the Forum.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Setting the Stage

Well fellow Grizzlies fans, we’re near the end of this amazing regular season adventure. We’ve laughed, cried (a lot lately), and watched our boys in blue show some true Grit and Grind spirit. Now before the playoffs get started, the team still has a little more work to do. Luckily, the work site will continue to be here at home for the next three games.

In their last home outing, Memphis beat the Kings 97-83, and essentially threw holy water all over the Forum to cleanse it of the Cavaliers' and Warriors' shellackings. Up next is a string of three more home games that come after three full days of rest for the weary Grizzlies. The first duck in the Grizzlies’ crosshairs is the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night at 7 PM. If you remember correctlyit’s likely you don’t, given the result—the last game between these two Western Conference titans was right before the All-Star break and ended in a 105-89 home victory for the Thunder.

Let's hope the Grizz win at least a few giant stuffed animals before all's said and done.

There are approximately a gazillion reasons to expect a very different result in this outing, but one of the most prominent ones is motivation. With only seven games remaining for most teams, there’s still a lot of jockeying for playoff seeds going on. Whether or not aiming for a certain playoff spot is the best course of action for the Grizzlies is highly debatable. In his top-notch piece, Jonah Jordan makes the case for pre-playoff rest and looks at how injuries and frustration have taken their toll on the Grizz.

On the other side are the fans who would prefer to have a) home court advantage and b) a (relatively) easy first round matchup. Based on past Grizzlies’ regular and subsequent postseason performances, I concluded that momentum and a strong finish are more important than rest for this Memphis team. There’s no right answer, however, and given the NBA’s arcane playoff seeding rules along with the fact that no one knows what’s going to happen anyhow, it’s almost impossible to even target a specific seed. Memphis supporters probably did some vigilant scoreboard-watching last night as the Mavericks dropped the ball at home vs. Houston. With that result, here’s what the West looks like currently:

Memphis is a half game back of Houston currently, but could be back at #2 after tonight.

One has to assume that San Antonio is going to keep rolling while whispers within the Staples Center might start to sound a little something like, "Hey Doc, Portland’s a cakewalk first round matchup but who we got after that? Golden State?!?! Okay, umm yeah maybe don’t try so hard at the free throw line DeAndre…" If that’s what ends up happening then things will REALLY be looking up for Memphis because they wouldn't have to face the Spurs until the Conference Finals…again. It’s only natural to root for anyone who plays the Clippers, but it also might be time to dig deep and *gulp* cheer for San Antonio. One game at a time, though, and getting back to what’s in store for tonight...

Tale of the Tape

Fans might not like the idea of playing long and hard minutes down the stretch, but it’s undeniable that many teams do just that. As such, motivation probably outweighs the majority of the stats that would determine a game’s outcome. In tonight’s matchup, we’ve got two teams looking at very different playoff pictures but turning in similar results. Both the Thunder and Grizzlies are 1-3 in their last four and have a blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs in common as well. The Thunder desperately need to start winning again because the pesky Pelicans just won’t stop nipping at OKC’s heels. Oklahoma City certainly has the easier remaining schedule compared to New Orleans, but after a few more slip-ups, we might not be watching Westbrook in May. That fact, on top of their narrow loss to the visiting Dallas Mavericks, will likely have the entire Thunder roster firing on all cylinders—whoever’s left to lace up, that is.

Just as Memphis and OKC are struggling in their recent outings, both are also struggling to fight off injuries. Tony Allen is again questionable for this game, and we know that nagging injuries plague many of the Grizzlies’ key players. While not ideal, that injury list is nothing compared to what the Thunder have dealt with. Kevin Durant’s foot injury and season-ending surgery are well known, but the team is also missing multiple other contributors. Andre Roberson is also out for the season and Serge Ibaka is missing for at least another week or two. And on the shorter term IR, Nick Collison and Steven Adams are day-to-day and will be game-time decisions on Friday night.

With those injuries, it’s going to take another triple-double-like performance from Russell Westbrook for the Thunder to have a chance in the Grindhouse. While he’s going to have the motivation to do so, apart from their two recent blowouts, Memphis has been unstoppable at home. The biggest areas to keep an eye on will be:

  1. How Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph handle ZERO interior defense from OKC. We’re all familiar with Z-Bo’s history against the Thunder but many of those dirty troublesome players will be in a suit and tie at tip-off. That leaves Enes Kanter to defend Memphis' bigs and, well, this game could potentially be the major catalyst that gets the Grizzlies going again offensively. The Thunder are hurting on the defensive end, and that’s just what the doctor ordered for a frustrated Gasol and…
  2. Courtney Lee. No need to rub your eyes or replace your monitor after seeing the following statistic (which I assure you is not a typo): C-Lee is 0 for 11 from 3 since returning from his hand injury. If the Grizzlies are going to exploit the shabby Thunder defense, it’s going to be through other avenues. But, who knows? This could be the game in which ALL the Grizzlies start clicking again and we see a Memphis resurgence. Fingers crossed!
  3. Westbrook and Morrow. These two are quickly becoming one of the hotter tandems in the league. Westbrook had been struggling to carry an entire team on his back for these tedious stretches of the season before Morrow showed up in a major way. Since the beginning of February the journeyman has been hitting 3’s at a 52.5% clip. That includes his 6 for 9 against Dallas, a game in which he finished with a cool 32 points. No TA means the Grizzlies are going to step up their perimeter defense very quickly before this man even THINKS about touching and then shooting the ball. Basically the same thing.

That's A Wrap

With all of the various motivational factors behind the scenes in these last 6 or 7 games, making any kind of prediction is difficult. This Oklahoma City team is desperate, and we've seen Russell Westbrook do some otherwordly things on the court when his back wasn't up against the wall. Still, Memphis might have figured things out, and if Joerger has done his homework, he knows that Memphis has to finish the season out strong for a good seed. If the Grizzlies are ever going to find a game to restore some semblance of offense, it'll be tonight against the lackluster Thunder defense.

Prediction- Grizzlies 102, Thunder 99