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Oklahoma City Thunder -10
Here’s what we know: Thunder are coming off an upset loss as a favorite, and this team is 7-1 ATS in bounce back spots. Here’s how they’ve done in the last 4 games following a loss: beat Philadelphia by 24, beat Minnesota by 22, won @ the Clippers by 12, and won @ Sacramento by 10. In the 7 games they’ve won and covered following a loss this season the average margin was +15.5 points. The only time they lost two games in a row was when playing @ Miami following a loss. Well, Thunder is at home tonight and Memphis is not Miami. This brings me to the second part of this analysis, the “we don’t know” part. We know that OKC will play hard tonight and will be focused on getting back on a winning track, what we don’t know is the mental makeup of the Grizzlies players. Sure Hollins will remind them that they’re ‘professionals’ and have a job to do, etc., but the move to trade Rudy Gay can’t be good for team chemistry. Hollins openly campaigned to ownership to keep the core group the same this season for one more run, but of course he wasn’t convincing enough. Everyone knows that it was done for financial reasons as new ownership was hell-bent on cutting expenses. What comes as a surprise though is that Gay was traded in-season, with the team sitting in the 4th spot in the West (very likely they would have gotten at least home-court advantage in the first round) and looking to make a strong post-season run. You have to remember that Grizzlies are a unique team that has 2 dominant big-men in the post, create a ton of turnovers with their defense, and tend to grind-out games, turning them into slow-paced, physical contests. This style is perfect for the playoffs, especially when you’re lacking truly dominant talent of your contenders (Durant, LeBron, Chris Paul, etc.). Even so, having a guy like Gay was important for Memphis, as he’s the only one on the team that could play 1-on-1 while facing the basket (both Gasol and Z-Bo are back to the basket, post-up type of players, though Gay could post-up smaller defenders as well). He was their “closer”, their biggest wing-defender (who’s going to match-up with Durant now?), and he’s been a staple of the organization for 7 years. What is even more surprising about this trade is that it was done AFTER Memphis already cleared enough cap space for this season by trading away Speights and Ellington. This is a clear sign of the organization ‘throwing in the towel’ this season, be it for financial reasons and/or because they don’t have faith in this group of players to compete in the post-season. The latter one is more demoralizing of course, especially since Memphis has beaten the likes of Miami, OKC, and Spurs this year, some of the best teams in the league. So how will the Grizzlies respond today? Like I’ve mentioned earlier, ‘we don’t really know’, but we can speculate that it will be hard to go “all out”. Besides, this team will be very short-handed as I don’t think any of their acquisitions will be ready to play. At the same time, Conley is still listed questionable with an ankle injury, and even if he plays, he probably won’t be at full-strength after only going through non-contact portion of the practice yesterday. Hard to chase Westbrook around with a bum-ankle and I expect big game out of Russell. At the same time, not sure who will be guarding Durant. Probably Allen, but he’s way undersized (6’4”), and Durant should be able to shoot jumpers over him all day. So are Chris Johnson (6’6”) and rookie Wroten (6’6”). Durant is listed at 6’9” and with his length that’s a huge advantage for OKC in this matchup. Maybe Grizzlies will play zone, but OKC can just go small, put Martin out there to space the floor, and shoot 3-pointers all day. I honestly think we’ll see a comfortable blowout win for Thunder in this one, though of course Grizzlies are a proud team and could put up a fight early on.
(One more point on this Gay trade. You’ll read people saying that two years ago Memphis beat the Spurs in the post-season as an 8-seed and then took OKC to 7 games in the next round, all without Rudy Gay. That’s true, but what you won’t hear mentioned is that Memphis had OJ Mayo that year to take on the scoring responsibility from the perimeter and a younger Shane Battier coming off a bench, who provided excellent D and 3PT shooting to stretch the floor. Imagine if Gay was healthy that year and in all honesty I wouldn’t be surprised if Memphis were the ones to win it all that season. The Mavs beat a young and inexperienced OKC team in the Conference Championship, but Grizzlies would have been a much tougher out. Plus, given Grizzlies’ size advantage and depth, I think they would have also beaten Miami that year in the Finals. Now without Gay, and no significant “scoring” depth on the wings, I just don’t see Grizzlies going far in the post-season.)