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.
REGGIE JACKSON VS. MIKE MILLER
ANALYSIS: No one can dispute Miller’s brilliance as a shooter, especially not the Thunder. But he’s one-dimensional. If that’s the one dimension you desperately need, great. But the all-around play that Jackson brings is much more impactful. Jackson scores, both off the dribble and as a spot-up shooter, creates plays for teammates and rebounds. His fingerprints have a chance to be all over every game in this series.
ANALYSIS: For the Thunder, it’s Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Derek Fisher and Caron Butler. For the Grizzlies, it’s Tony Allen and Mike Miller. Allen provides stiff defense, and Miller gives the Grizzlies a much-needed shooter. But the combination of Jackson’s explosiveness, Fisher’s shooting and Butler’s versatility should give the Thunder a sizeable advantage in the second unit.
ANALYSIS: If Nick Collison is the Thunder’s X-factor against Memphis because of his low-post defense, Steven Adams could be the team’s secret weapon of sorts. The rookie center was a pleasant surprise all season. He showed no fear against any opponent and proved to be a quick learner. If at any point Kendrick Perkins or Serge Ibaka are in foul trouble, Adams could help the Thunder steal minutes by tag-teaming with Collison to provide quality production off the bench. Ed Davis, Kosta Koufos and James Johnson aren’t big contributors for the Grizzlies, but their length and athleticism can pose problems.
SCOTT BROOKS VS. DAVE JOERGER
ANALYSIS: With just three more wins this postseason, Brooks will have more playoff wins than San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich through their first six seasons. Joerger’s next playoff win will be his first. If he again guides the Thunder to the NBA Finals this year, Brooks will move past Al Attles, Larry Bird, Bryon Scott, Doug Moe, Bill Russell, Bill Sharman, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Del Harris and Mike Dunleavy among others on the all-time list of playoff victories by coaches.
CHESAPEAKE ENERGY ARENA VS. FEDEX FORUM
ANALYSIS: The Peake vs. The Grind House. Fans are louder in OKC. But they get rowdier in Memphis. The Thunder gets more unconditional support. The Grizzlies generate crowds mostly for big games and big events. The Thunder went 34-7 at home this year. The Grizzlies went 27-14 at home this year.
ANALYSIS: Based off the second half of the regular season, these are two teams headed in opposite directions. Memphis started the season 15-19 but finished 35-13. The Thunder was 43-12 before the All-Star break but went 16-11 after. And it’s not just that the Thunder was losing. It’s how OKC was losing. Since the All-Star break, the Thunder’s defense allowed 104.4 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting. Memphis enters the postseason having won five straight. The Thunder has dropped four of its past eight.
ANALYSIS: Any team with Derek Fisher is going to have an advantage in postseason experience. The Thunder’s reserve guard is just five games shy of moving past Robert Horry on the all-time list of career playoff games. But the Thunder is no longer reliant on Fisher’s playoff mettle. Caron Butler’s addition gives the Thunder another veteran with six years of postseason experience that came with four different teams. Kendrick Perkins also has championship experience. And now, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are seasoned postseason players.