By Anthony Slater – Aslater@opubco.com - @anthonyVslater
With both teams riding a five-game win streak, Memphis rolls into Oklahoma City tonight for the Thunder’s biggest test to date. Here’s a pregame primer:
Three things to watch
1. Perkins matters – Before games like this, I picture Kendrick Perkins as Liam Neeson’s character in Taken, prank calling the opposing coach and grunting, “I’ve got a particular set of skills, a very unique set of skills, that make me very dangerous to a team like yours.” Because it’s no secret the big center has been out of his element lately, rebounding little and scoring less against quick and undersized Eastern Conference teams. But now he’s got Zach Randolph (the NBA’s leading rebounder) and Marc Gasol (Memphis’ massive center who Perkins has never got along with) coming into his house and infiltrating his paint. Time to earn your money, Perk.
2. Durant’s aggressiveness - A big early-season conference game, at home, against a heated rival. Sounds like the perfect time for KD to ramp up his offensive aggression. The past three seasons, OKC’s superstar forward has averaged right around 20 shots per game. But through eight games this year, he’s only getting up 16.6. And he’s still yet to hit the 30-point plateau that used to be a guarantee.
3. Second units - On paper, the Thunder seem to have a slight advantage in bench production. Kevin Martin and Nick Collison lead a veteran unit who have played consistent and effective in nearly every game. But beware of their Memphis counterparts. The Grizzlies second unit is headlined by a pair of inexperienced but potentially explosive bench options in Wayne Ellington (who hit seven threes on Sunday in a win over Miami) and Jerryd Bayless (a talented point guard who’s yet to find a home in the league). Whoever wins this matchup likely wins the game.
Matchup to watch
Russell Westbrook v Mike Conley Jr.
Conley’s name is rarely thrown into the conversation when discussing the league’s elite point guards. And it probably shouldn’t be, with his NBA impact not nearing that of Westbrook, Rondo and Rose, among others. But don’t sleep on Memphis’ sharpshooting team-leader. He’s averaging career-highs in points (14.8) and assists (6.8) right now. And he’s perfectly capable of outplaying Westbrook on any given night, especially considering Westbrook’s hot-and-cold start to the year.
Stat of the game
Both teams per game averages nearly mirror each other. Memphis is scoring 100.7 points per game and giving up 91.7. Oklahoma City is scoring 99.1 and giving up 92.0.
The Thunder’s five-game win streak looks slightly less impressive when you consider all the wins came against bottom-tier Eastern Conference teams with a combined 11-28 record. Meanwhile, Memphis has taken down Utah, Houston’s Hardens and the defending champs (by 18 points) in their five-game run. But this one is in The Peake, and it should be rowdy. I’ll take OKC by 7 in its first true test.