As the Spurs and Grizzlies get set for a big Game 6 in Memphis tonight, Thunder fans will be watching with a little different perspective. One of these two teams will be the next opponent.
That was obviously true before and we were all thinking about that when Oklahoma City went up 3-0, but now it’s an official question. Who should the Thunder be rooting for? It’s a pretty important question because if OKC was to win this series, it would be in the Western Conference Finals. That… just blows my mind to think about.
Here’s my snap take: I think the Thunder matches up better with the Spurs. I really do. Yes, OKC went 0-3 against them with only one game being close, but the Thunder’s speed, athleticism and size inside could really frustrate San Antonio. You know, much like the Grizzlies. And of course those three games came with the Old Thunder, not the New Thunder. Big, big difference. No doubt the Spurs are a great team. They didn’t accidentally win 61 games. They’re championship tested. But in terms of straight matchups, I’d prefer the Spurs.
But this answer is so simple. Really, you shouldn’t have to think about it. Home court trumps all. The Thunder can win on the road. They proved it in Denver. Starting a series at home though, is more important than anything else.
Plus, the Spurs are better than the Grizzlies. Against each other? The Grizzlies appear to have a real edge. As far as a team however, Ginobili, Duncan, Parker and the cast of role playing superstars is a better group than Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Tony Allen’s haircut. Either series will be a major challenge, but if we’re looking at which team presents the best opportunity to get to the Western Conference Finals (so fun to say), it has to be Memphis.
The way the Thunder wins — especially in the postseason — is behind great defense, good rebounding and lots of Kevin Durant. If there’s a night where you combine Good Russell Westbrook to that, the Thunder beats almost anyone. Combine James Harden, Serge Ibaka and the rest of the bench and this Thunder team is championship caliber. Seriously.
So how well does each team defend KD? Well, against Memphis in four games, Durant took four more shots per game than his regular season average and shot 47 percent (normal). He took more 3s than usual, averaging seven a game and hitting just 29 percent of those. KD’s offensive rating drops about five points and he’s a -5.3 per 48 minutes. Memphis forces KD midrange the most, where he was 19-40 against the Grizzlies.
Against San Antonio in three games, Durant averaged just 23.0 ppg and was a -13.7 per 48. KD’s percentages are right on average except from 3 (22 percent) and he gets to the free throw line less (6.3 attempts per game as opposed to 8.7 on the season). Durant’s offensive rating drops to just 93.5 and his true shooting percentage to 52.8 (down from 58.9).
Clearly, KD plays better against Memphis. It may have seemed like Tony Allen does great work on Durant, but that’s not entirely true. KD actually averages 28.9 ppg per 36 with Allen on the floor as opposed to 21.2 with him on the bench. Against Shane Battier though, Durant averaged 30.5 with Battier on the bench and 23.4 with him on the bench (per 36). Battier has always defended Durant well and I’d assume that’s who Lionel Hollins would go with on KD. (The main thing Battier does so well is defend KD without fouling. Durant gets just 3.8 free throws per 36 with Battier on the floor against 8.7 with him off.)
The Grizzlies have two good defenders to throw at Durant, but KD has succeeded a lot more against them than against the defensive system of San Antonio. Pretty interesting.
How about Russell Westbrook? Westbrook does not play well against the Spurs (17.3 ppg, 33 percent shooting, 93.94 offensive rating, 42.8 true shooting, 5.7 assists per game and a -12.3 per 48). Westbrook shot just 30 percent at the rim and 36 percent from midrange against San Antonio. Against Memphis, he’s much better (24.5 ppg, 9.0 apg, 103.59 offensive rating, 47 percent shooting, 56.1 true shooting). And most importantly, Westbrook gets to the rim with success much more against the Grizzlies (20-28).
The one wildcard to this that makes the Grizzlies feared by most in Thunder blue is Zach Randolph. In four games, Randolph averaged 26.5 ppg and 13.0 rpg and was a +7.3 per 48. Virtually every number across the board, is up. He destroyed OKC. However, a caveat: Those are all pre-Perk trade. Consider this: Against Jeff Green, Randolph averaged 23.7 points on 58 percent shooting and grabbed 12.0 rebounds per 36. With Green on the bench, that’s 19.0 points on 44 percent shooting. Against Serge Ibaka, those numbers aren’t a whole lot different, but Randolph is certainly less effective (rebounds to 9.3 per 36 and points to 20.7).
As a team though, the difference is fairly substantial. With Ibaka on the bench, Memphis was a +18.2 per 48. With him on the floor, a -8.6. That’s a really substantial difference. Their offensive rating goes from 115.0 to just 102.83 when Ibaka plays. Every rebounding number drops. They shoot 45.4 percent compared to 51.5 percent. Contrasted to Jeff Green, Memphis had an offensive rating of 103.24 with him on the court but just 95.90 with him on the bench. Ibaka a major wildcard in a series with both teams really, but with the Grizzlies, the frontline of Perk and Ibaka will have a major impact.
So back to the potential matchup. Not just in having homecourt but really the numbers agree — Memphis is the better match for the Thunder. I know what the eye says. It looks like the Spurs are vulnerable. It looks like they’re old. It looks like they’re more beatable. But don’t believe that. Homecourt is worth it’s weight over every stat and besides, it looks like the numbers favor a Grizz matchup anyway. Neither presents and “easy” road to the Western Finals. Both feel like seven-game material. And I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have a Game 7 in OKC over playing a supposedly over-the-hill Spurs group.