If the Thunder survives the Rockets in this Western Conference first-round series, which would be the more advantageous opponent in the semifinals. Clippers or Grizzlies? They play Friday night, same time as Thunder-Rockets, in Game 6 of their series.
Like a lot of things with Oklahoma City, the answer is different pre- and post-Russell Westbrook injury.
Before losing Westbrook, the Thunder clearly should have preferred the Clippers. The Clips are deep and talented, but the Clippers’ greatest weapons are countered quite adequately by the Thunder. Chris Paul is a premier point guard. But Westbrook was a nightmare matchup for CP3. Meanwhile, if Scotty Brooks so desired, and he often did, Thabo Sefolosha could switch over and dog Paul. And either Westbrook or Thabo were solid defenders against LA sharpshooter Jamal Crawford.
The Clippers are good inside with Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Lamar Odom, but the Thunder is better defensively in the post than the Clippers are offensively. So the Clippers were a favorable matchup for the Thunder. With Westbrook.
But without Westbrook, all bets are off. Thabo still can guard Paul, but Reggie Jackson is not the defender that Westbrook is. Maybe Jackson will be fine, but he’s still a work in progress.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are a total load of a team. A defensive juggernaut that doesn’t have much perimeter shooting but pounds the ball inside to big and wide Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies, with primo defenders Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince (and Mike Conley is good, too), are uniquely constructed to counter Kevin Durant and Westbrook. The Thunder does not score easily on Memphis even with Westbrook, much less without him.
Which is why Memphis is the better matchup without Westbrook. OKC’s offense will struggle against the Grizzlies — and to a lesser extent, against the Clippers, too. The offensive flow just isn’t there, without Westbrook. So better to play a series that figures to be low-scoring and grinding.
Because the Thunder is uniquely constructed to counter the Memphis strength. The Thunder’s interior defense is excellent. Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison. Their value has been limited against the Houston Greyhounds. But against the Memphis lumberjacks, Perk’s and Ibaka’s and Collison’s value zooms. The 2011 West semifinal series between Memphis and OKC became a tug’o war, with the same primary combatants in the paint.
The Grizzlies definitely would be favored over the Thunder, sans Westbrook, but the Thunder can at least match up. Thunder fans tonight should say, go Memphis.