Memphis hosts the Mavericks on Wednesday night in the NBA game most relevant to Thunder fortunes. If the Thunder gets the second seed in the Western Conference, which seems most likely, then OKC would play the Memphis-Dallas-winner in the first round of the playoffs.
So which team would be best for the Thunder to meet? Easy. Dallas.
I know, the Mavericks are 2-1 vs. OKC this season, while Memphis is 1-3 vs. the Thunder.
But take the history a bit longer. The Thunder and Grizzlies largely are the same teams they’ve been the last couple of years. Both rosters are a little different, both levels of play have varied somewhat, but we’re talking similar teams. Dallas is more different, with the addition of Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon.
Last season, Memphis went 2-1 vs. the Thunder, then beat the Thunder in five games in the West semifinals, albeit without Russell Westbrook. In 2011-12, OKC went 3-1 vs. Memphis, but all four were tight games, then the Grizzlies famously took the Thunder to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.
Last season, Dallas went 0-4 vs. the Thunder. In fact, the year before that, OKC swept the Mavericks in four games in the first round of the playoffs, and won three of four during the regular season, including the last two. So the Thunder had won 11 straight against the Mavericks until this March 16.
That’s the Sunday night when the Thunder was without three starters (Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins), and Dallas rolled OKC 109-86. Nine days later, still missing Thabo and Perk, the Thunder lost 128-119 in overtime at Dallas, and Westbrook sat out the first three minutes of overtime due to his restricted status recovering from injury.
There is no question that Memphis is a tougher matchup for the Thunder. And here’s more evidence. The Grizzlies play defense. The Mavericks rely on offense.
Offense shrivels in the playoffs. Defense rises. It’s been that way forever. Referees allow more clutching and grabbing. There are fewer whistles. The games get more physical. Memphis was made for the playoffs.
The Grizzlies rank just eighth in NBA team defense (points per possession), but that’s largely because center Marc Gasol, the reigning NBA defensive player of the year, missed 32 games due to injury. Dallas ranks 22nd in team defense.
Offense is a different story. The Mavericks rank third in team offense; the Grizzlies rank 16th.
But again, offense shrivels in the playoffs.
Last season, the Clippers entered the postseason with the No. 4 offense in the NBA. The Grizzlies entered with the No. 2 defense. The Clips had homecourt advantage, but the Grizzlies beat LA in six games in the first round of the playoffs.
There is no question who Kevin Durant would rather play. Two weeks of going against Dallas’ Shawn Marion, a professional defender who is aging, or two weeks of going against Memphis’ Tony Allen, an alley fighter who sends every foe, win or lose, home every night licking his wounds.
Westbrook’s path would be easier, too. Memphis’ Mike Conley has become an excellent offensive point guard and is also solid defensively. The Maverick point guards are no match for Westbrook.
The Memphis-Dallas game is in Memphis, so advantage Grizzlies. Both squads should be playing to win, since both would apparently like to avoid San Antonio and the high-flying Spurs.
The Thunder will take whoever it gets. But it absolutely would prefer to play Dallas.