Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Grizzlies-Thunder Game Preview

Posted By on Tue, Jan 4, 2011 at 11:44 AM

The Grizzlies return home from their unexpected road beat down of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to host the Oklahoma City Thunder. It's the first of four meetings between the two teams (the second is this Saturday in OKC). I'll be on hand tonight, tweeting from courtside (follow: @FlyerGrizBlog) and following up with a post-game blog notebook later tonight. Until then, a few thoughts in advance of a potentially momentum-building game for the Grizzlies.

The Oklahoma City Thunders destructive duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbook make their first FedExForum appearance of the season tonight.
  • The Oklahoma City Thunder's destructive duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbook make their first FedExForum appearance of the season tonight.
1. Fearing Russell Westbrook: Kevin Durant is the marquee attraction for the Thunder, but point guard sidekick Russell Westbrook has been nipping at his alpha-dog heels this season. Westbrook is averaging 22 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 steals and his 23.5 PER is only .3 behind Durant. Given the problems the Grizzlies have had defending dynamic opposing point guards and given the physical advantages that Westbrook — an electric athlete at 6'3" — has over Mike Conley, I think he worries me even more than Durant.

Westbrook didn't kill the Grizzlies last season, averaging 13/7/6 in three games, though he did put up 23/6/7 in the Thunder's win at FedExForum. But Westbrook is a different player this season, and it will be interested how much the Grizzlies try to get defenders other than Conley on him. Obviously back-up point guard Greivis Vasquez gives the team a bigger defender on Westbrook, but the best match-ups are probably Tony Allen and O.J. Mayo.

For starters, if Conley struggles with Westbook, will the Griz move Conley onto Thunder two-guard Thabo Sefolosha, who is 6'7" but a non-scorer, and put presumed starter Tony Allen on Westbrook? And will tonight's match-ups present an opportunity to experiment again with the big lineup of Allen-Mayo-Rudy Gay on the perimeter, which we got a brief glimpse of last week against Toronto?

One way or another, I'd look for Tony Allen to be an important player tonight. After shuttling in and out of the rotation for much of the season, Allen seems to finally be settling in for the Grizzlies, averaging 25 minutes over the past four games, with 3.5 steals, and double-figure scoring in three of the four games.

2. Kevin Durant vs. Rudy Gay: The star of last summer's Team USA squad and his understudy — both Baltimore-area natives and long friendly — face off. Durant is the league's top scorer and the Western Conference's best small forward. Gay is the Grizzlies' top scorer and the conference's third best small forward, with a chance to move up to second if and when Carmelo Anthony is dealt east.

Durant is the better player and will remain so, but Gay is enough of a match for him to make the match-up interesting. And Gay hit a late game-winner over Durant to seal the Grizzlies' lone win over the Thunder last season. I don't think this match-up is necessarily the key to the game — containing Westbrook, doing damage inside, and not letting Jeff Green locate his recently missing three-point stroke would top that list — but it promises to be the most entertaining subplot.

3. What Hasheem Thabeet Could/Should Be: As Hasheem Thabeet regresses in his second season, the Thunder offer a showcase of what should be happening with Thabeet. The Thunder's own African import in the middle, 21-year-old Serge Ibaka, came into the league very raw but is emerging as a quality defender and energy guy for his team. Averaging 26 minutes game, Ibaka is registering 10 points, 7 rebounds, and nearly 2.5 blocks a game with a 17.9 PER. He's had a double-double in each of his past two games, with 7 blocks over the two games. Have the Thunder done a better job developing Ibaka than the Griz have Thabeet? Or is it that Ibaka's hunger and work ethic are so much stronger. I suspect it's some of both, but mostly the latter.

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