Repeating last year’s and 2011’s Western Conference semifinals, the No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder this time meet the No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol powered the Grizzlies surprising 4-1 series victory over the defending West champions last year, avenging OKC’s 4-3 take down in a thrilling series three years ago.
Now the rubber match has been set for Saturday’s Game One at Chesapeake Energy Arena, and this year OKC has point guard Russell Westbrook back to take some pressure off MVP candidate Kevin Durant.
Durant secured the fourth scoring title of his career with 32 points a game and is likely this season’s MVP after carrying his team through long stretches without Westbrook, the hyper-athlete who battled knee injuries all season but still managed 21.8 points and 6.9 assists in 46 games.
Westbrook has a knack for upping his game come playoff time, and the Thunder sorely missed his presence last year after he went down in Game Two of their first-round series against Houston. In 45 career playoff games, Westbrook averages 23 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists with 1.6 steals.
Complementing Durant and Westbrook is a solid core both up front and along the perimeter.
Center Serge Ibaka maintained his status as one of the league’s top shot blockers with 2.7 per contest, along with 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds. OKC third-year point guard Reggie Jackson is relatively new to the rivalry, as is veteran swingman Caron Butler, but Jackson emerged as an excellent scorer filling in for Westbrook with 13.1 points and 4.1 assists, while Butler provides Durant a needed breather.
Averaging 17.4 points and 10.1 rebounds, Randolph also had to carry Memphis’s interior with Gasol sidelined for 23 games with a knee injury early in the season. The Grizzlies found their stride late in the year with a 40-17 record down the long stretch and powered through April with a 6-2 mark while blowing past Phoenix and Dallas for the No. 7 seed.
Gasol, who holds down a Memphis frontline that powered the league’s third ranked defense, torched OKC for 19.4 points and 8.4 rebounds in the post season last year, along with 3.0 blocks per game.
However the Grizzlies defense starts at the perimeter with guards Mike Conley Jr. and Tony Allen, and veteran forward Tayshaun Prince. Together the trio generates nearly four steals a game and opponents manage only 45 percent shooting from the floor, and 35 percent from three.
TV Channel: ESPN
Time: 9:30 p.m. EST
Live Online Stream Info: Watch ESPN here
Betting Odds: OKC is favored -7
Over/Under: 192 points
Prediction: OKC 109, Memphis 95