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Thunder seek payback Saturday vs. Grizzlies
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Published: 4/19/2014  at  4:12:00 AM
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NBA Playoffs - Western Conference First Round
Game 1
Tip-off: Saturday, 9:30 p.m. ET
Line: Oklahoma City -7, Total: 192.5

A healthy Russell Westbrook will look to help lead the Thunder against the Grizzlies when the teams open their postseason on Saturday in a rematch of last seasonís Western Conference semifinal series.

Oklahoma City appeared ready to make a deep run in the playoffs last season, but star PG Russell Westbrook got hurt. In that series, Memphis was able to focus on Kevin Durant, and knocked the Thunder out in five games. However, it was a very competitive series as every game was decided by six points or less. Oklahoma City was able to get some revenge during the regular season as they took three of the four games in this series, including two straight at home. In the most recent meeting on Feb. 28 at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Thunder won a high-scoring affair, 113-107, as the teams combined to shoot 50.3% FG and 52.6% threes. Durant scored 37 points in that game, as Oklahoma City had a 16-point lead entering the final quarter before holding off Memphis for the victory. The Grizzlies (36-43-3 ATS overall) started off very slow this season at 10-15 SU, but closed out with a 23-9 SU mark in their final 32 games, including five straight victories (2-1-2 ATS) to end the regular season. They finished with a winning record on the road at 23-18 SU (19-20-2 ATS). The Thunder (43-38-1 ATS overall) have been tough to beat at home this season (34-7 SU, 23-17-1 ATS), but have not had a great month of April, going 5-4 SU (4-5 ATS). However, the team has been resting Westbrook by not playing him in back-to-back games, so he should be fresh for this postseason. Both clubs have positive betting trends, as Memphis is 25-13 ATS (66%) versus very good teams (6+ PPG margin) over the past two seasons, while Oklahoma City is 14-3 ATS (82%) versus poor pressure defensive teams (14 or less forced TOPG) in the second half of the past two seasons. There are no significant injuries for either team.

The Grizzlies have been on a torrid pace as of late, averaging 105.8 PPG on 52% FG during their five-game win streak. Memphis was just 10-13 without C Marc Gasol (14.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.3 BPG) this season, but is 40-19 (.678) with its big man in uniform. When Gasol is on the floor for the Grizzlies, Memphis has one of the most versatile frontcourts in the NBA. He is one of the best passing centers in the league, and that allows PF Zach Randolph (17.4 PPG, 10.1 RPG) to have the one-on-one matchups on the low block. Randolph is not going to wow you with crazy athleticism, but he is a smart player that is relentless when attacking the rim. Randolph averaged 16.5 PPG and 11.0 RPG during the four meetings with the Thunder during the regular season, but he struggled with his shot, making just 37% FG and 67% FT. But he was a beast against Oklahoma City in the playoffs last season, averaging 18.4 PPG (45% FG) and 10.8 RPG during the five-game series. PG Mike Conley (17.2 PPG, 6.0 APG, 2.9 RPG) set a career-high for points this season, giving the Grizzlies a third scorer they desperately need. He also ran the offense effectively all season, especially against the Thunder, who he averaged 15.0 PPG and 8.3 APG against over three meetings. Conley's heady play on both ends of the court is a big reason why Memphis ranks third in the NBA in both fewest turnovers (12.9 TOPG) and scoring defense (94.6 PPG allowed). These two stats are huge for a team that at times can struggle to score, ranking 27th in the NBA with only 96.1 PPG. Mike Miller (7.1 PPG, 46% threes) is the only consistent long-range shooter on the team, and he burned Oklahoma City this season for 9.8 PPG on 58% threes (7-of-12). The biggest advantage for the Grizzlies is the fact that they are built to win in the playoffs, where the tempo tends to slow down and possessions become more valuable, so that could play a big role in this series if they are able to slow down the high-powered Thunder.

Oklahoma City is a bit too careless with the ball, averaging 14.8 turnovers per game on the season (5th-worst in NBA). However, that has not prevented the club from scoring, as it ranks fifth in the league in points at 106.2 PPG on an impressive shooting clip of 47.1% FG (6th in NBA) and a solid 36.1% threes (14th in league). Free throws tend to play a big role in the playoffs, and the Thunder rank second in the NBA in this department at 80.6% FT. Compare that to the Grizzlies' 74.1% FT clip (23rd in league), and the Thunder will have a great chance to prevail if it turns into a free-throw contest. PG Russell Westbrook (21.8 PPG, 6.9 APG, 5.7 RPG) is scary enough when he is playing a normal game. Add the fact that he was unable to play in the playoffs last season against the Grizzlies, and Memphis is going to have to be ready to protect the rim. When Westbrook is able to get some points in transition early, he becomes nearly impossible to slow down, which Memphis witnessed first-hand this season when Westbrook tallied 24.0 PPG (58% FG), 7.5 APG, 4.0 RPG and 2.5 SPG in two meetings. While SF Kevin Durant (32.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG) is the star of the team, Westbrook is the guy that gets both the team and fans into the game. Durant just wrapped up his fourth scoring title in the past five seasons, including 30.8 PPG (52% FG), 6.0 RPG and 5.0 APG versus Memphis this season. He is too good for anyone to slow down from scoring, but he has become a more complete basketball player. With Westbrook out last season, he put too much pressure to do it on his own, and wound up with 28.8 PPG during the series loss to the Grizzlies, but he shot just 42% FG and 36% threes in the five games. Durant demands such a focus from the defense, and he has done a great job this season of making the extra pass to get a teammate an easy basket with a career-high 5.5 APG. The team is more prepared for a deep playoff run this season because the bench has been bolstered with players like PG Reggie Jackson (13.1 PPG, 4.1 APG, 3.9 RPG), SF Caron Butler (9.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG) and SG Jeremy Lamb (8.5 PPG) to give the team more scoring from the second unit. Jackson had to play a lot of minutes last postseason when Westbrook went out, and played very well versus Memphis with 13.8 PPG (50% FG), 6.2 RPG and 3.8 APG in the five-game series. PF Serge Ibaka (15.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.7 BPG) has continued to improve on the offensive end, while remaining one of the best shot-blockers in the game. He also held his own against the strong Grizzlies frontcourt this season, averaging 15.0 PPG (51% FG), 9.3 RPG and 2.5 BPG in four meetings.

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