The Memphis Grizzlies won two of three meetings this year against the Oklahoma City Thunder with point guard Russell Westbrook in the lineup.
Though the three-time All-Star is less than two weeks removed from a season-ending knee injury he suffered in Game 2 of the Thunder’s opening-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said he isn’t buying into the notion that his team has emerged as the favorite to knock off the Western Conference’s top-seeded team in a series that starts Sunday in Oklahoma City at 12 p.m. CST.
“You know, you’ve got to go play,” Hollins said after the Grizzlies’ 118-105 closeout win in Game 6 over the Los Angeles Clippers Friday night in FedExForum. “That’s the thing everybody keep saying, ‘Oh you can beat them because he’s out.’ They just won a series with him out. They’re a good team.”
Like the Grizzlies, Oklahoma City needed six games to eliminate the Rockets in a series in which it seemed the Thunder would win easily before Westbrook’s injury. The Thunder, who own home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs, won Game 1 in a rout, 120-91, at Chesapeake Energy Arena, as Westbrook nearly registered a triple-double with 19 points, 10 assists, and eight rebounds.
Then in the Thunder’s 105-102 win in Game 2, Westbrook and fellow star Kevin Durant each scored 29 points. A five-year veteran, Westbrook played 37 minutes in that game, but unfavorable news would follow for the Thunder although they had taken a 2-0 lead in the series. Team officials announced that Westbrook would miss the remainder of the playoffs because of a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. Westbrook went down in the second quarter of Game 2 when Houston Rockets rookie Patrick Beverley went for a steal and ran into his knee.
Despite squandering a 26-point first-half lead in Game 3, the Thunder eventually prevailed and took a 3-0 lead against the Rockets behind Durant’s 41-point outburst. However, over the next two games, the Thunder appeared affected by the absence of Westbrook, the team’s second-leading scorer who averaged better than 23 points per game during the regular season. Also, the former UCLA star accounted for roughly a third of the possessions for a Thunder team that advanced to the NBA Finals last year.
Houston won the next two outings, including a 107-100 win at Oklahoma City in Game 5 before the Thunder ended the suspense with a 103-94 road win Friday night to close out the series.
Against the Grizzlies, one of the NBA’s best defensive teams that won a franchise-record 56 games during the regular season, Westbrook’s absence would provide Hollins with more resources to throw at Kevin Martin, Westbrook’s replacement. Still, he said upending a Thunder team that is the league’s second-most efficient offensive squad (110.2 points per 100 possessions) won’t come easily, considering Durant, the NBA’s second-leading scorer (28.1 ppg), is capable of catching fire at any given moment.
“They’re not just a one-man team,” Hollins said. “They’re a good team and we have to go play and earn whatever we get in this series. I feel good about our team simply because where we’re at mentally and physically we’re in good health. And we’ve been playing pretty decent. That’s why I feel pretty good about my team. I’m not worried about who they have or don’t have. We have to go out there and play according to our abilities.”