RUSSELL WESTBROOK VS. MIKE CONLEY JR.
ANALYSIS: Conley is a fabulous point guard, one of the most underrated in the league. He plays within himself, plays under control, orchestrates his team’s offense and makes his teammates better. This season, Conley is averaged a career-best 17.2 points, generating more free throws and attempting more 3-pointers than ever while also connecting on a career-high 45 percent of his field goals. He’s everything you’d want in a point guard, and he’s only getting better. And he’s still no match for Westbrook, who probably will watch Memphis attempt to hide Conley on other wing players and assign other defenders on him throughout each game of the series. It isn’t likely to help. The Grizzlies don’t have anyone who can stop Westbrook, and with Westbrook forced to watch Memphis take last year’s semifinal in five he could now be out for vengeance.
THABO SEFOLOSHA VS. COURTNEY LEE
ANALYSIS: As effective as Sefolosha can be in slowing down the opposing team’s best perimeter player, he has yet to prove at any point this season that he’s still capable of being a reliable shooter. He’s shooting just 31.6 percent from 3-point range. That can’t continue against the Grizzlies. If Sefolosha can’t serve as an outlet for Westbrook and Kevin Durant he’d better supply some pretty stout defense. His problem there, however, is Lee isn’t a focal point of the Grizzlies’ offense so the need for Sefolosha against Memphis could be reduced. There’s a good chance the Thunder deploys Sefolosha against Conley in stretches, at which point Sefolosha would become much more valuable if he can slow down the Grizzlies’ floor general. But if Sefolosha can’t make shots, Lee, who can make shots while also providing good defense, will be the more impactful player at this position.
KEVIN DURANT VS. TAYSHAUN PRINCE
ANALYSIS: Think Durant remembers the way Memphis mugged him in last year’s postseason? You can bet he’s licking his chops this time around with Westbrook back in the mix to keep the Grizzlies from ganging up on him with double and triple teams. Prince has incredible length to help him contend with Durant, but no way can Prince alone slow down KD. Even without Westbrook around last year, Durant averaged 28.8 points in the five-game series. His field-goal percentage plummeted, but you can expect that to change now that Westbrook’s back to alleviate some pressure.
SERGE IBAKA VS. ZACH RANDOLPH
ANALYSIS: When they met three years ago, this matchup wasn’t even close. When these teams locked horns in last year’s postseason, Ibaka still wasn’t equipped to deal with Randolph. But times have changed. Randolph is still a wonderful player who puts pressure on you with paint scoring and persistent rebounding. But Ibaka has closed the gap by blossoming into a well-rounded offensive player whose moderate usage makes him even more valuable as a third option. Defense, though, is really where Ibaka separates himself. He’s become a better post and pick-and-roll defender and still supplies a steady stream of game-changing blocks. It’s Ibaka’s ability to affect the game on both ends that now makes him a bigger threat.
KENDRICK PERKINS VS. MARC GASOL
ANALYSIS: Gasol is among the best centers in basketball. There’s not much he can’t do. He scores inside and out. He rebounds. He defends both in the paint and away from the basket. He’s one of the best passers in basketball, and not just among big men. He has a knack for making big shots and supplying big plays. And he inspires his team with his energy and passion. Perkins is on the team to slow down players like Gasol and Randolph so this is a series in which he should earn his money.