The Oklahoma City Thunder begin their playoff push Saturday night when they host the Memphis Grizzlies at Chesapeake Energy Arena at 9:30 p.m. EDT.
It’s the third time in four years these teams meet in the postseason, with Oklahoma City slugging out a seven-game victory in the Western Conference Semifinals in 2011 and Memphis taking down the Thunder in five games in the Western Conference Semifinals last spring.
Memphis’ victory came sans Russell Westbrook for OKC, as he tore his meniscus in Game 2 against the Rockets in the first round and was lost for the playoffs—as well as a significant portion of this season.
And that’s why Westbrook is the X-factor in this series.
A HEALTHY, RESTED WESTBROOK SPELLS TROUBLE
The Thunder took the season series from the Grizzlies 3-1 this season winning by 16 and losing by three at Memphis and winning by nine and six at home.
But Oklahoma City only had Westbrook available for the first meeting in Memphis (the 116-100 win on Dec, 11) and the last meeting in Oklahoma City (a 113-107 win on Feb. 28).
Of course, it’s only fair to point out that All-Star center Marc Gasol did not play for the Grizzlies on Dec. 11 when he was out with a knee injury of his own.
Westbrook came back after the All-Star break and has been very good, averaging 22.3 points, 6.9 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 steals while shooting 45.5 percent overall, 32.7 percent from the 3-point area and 86 percent in 6.8 free-throw attempts per game.
The Thunder stumbled a bit down the stretch, winning four of their last eight games, but the decision coach Scott Brooks made in the second half of the season to not play Westbrook in consecutive games on back-to-backs could pay dividends now that the playoffs are here.
For starters, he’s fresher than he would ordinarily be this time of year. Westbrook had played 439 consecutive games, including playoffs, in his career before he was hurt against Houston.
This season, he played in just 46 games and averaged a career-low 30.7 minutes per game. After the All-Star break, not only was Westbrook not playing back-to-backs, but he was also on a minutes restriction; he averaged only 28.1 minutes in those 21 games he played post-break.
Now Westbrook did ramp up his playing time down the stretch, averaging 32.1 minutes in six games in April, during which his scoring increased to 26.2 points per game and his usage percentage shot up to 37.3 percent, the highest it was for any month this season.
The biggest challenge Westbrook presents to the Grizzlies is in terms of matchups. With Westbrook healthy and Kevin Durant being who he is, Memphis is forced to put its best defender—Tony Allen—on Durant, which leaves Westbrook matched up with the smaller Mike Conley.
In the game on Feb. 28, the Grizzlies attempted to check Westbrook with Courtney Lee, a bigger defender than Conley, but Brooks countered that by putting Reggie Jackson into the game and sliding Westbrook over to the 2 guard spot.
How big is the matchup problem? Per NBA.com/Stats, the Thunder were plus-26 in the two games against Memphis with Westbrook on the floor. Plus-26 in 57 minutes is a big, big problem for the Grizzlies.
MORE PERKINS … FOR SOME REASON KNOWN ONLY TO BROOKS
The only potential downside for Oklahoma City in a matchup with Memphis is that Brooks will have the perfect opportunity to over-play Kendrick Perkins as a counter to the Grizzlies’ big-man tandem of Gasol and Zach Randolph. Not to rip on Perk (well, actually, it’s precisely to rip on Perk), but the Thunder have a net rating of plus-1.9 when Perkins is on the floor and a net of plus-9.4 without him.
Yes, Perkins makes the defense better … by a whopping 0.3 points per 100 possessions. But playing with Perkins on the floor is akin to going 4-on-5 at the offensive end. OKC’s offensive rating is just 102.6 points per 100 possessions when Perkins is on the floor.
That rating skyrockets to 110.5 when he sits. That is the biggest on-off fluctiation in offensive rating of any regular player in OKC’s rotation—not even the drop from 109.7 to 101.7 when Durant sits out exceeds the 8.1-point differential in offensive efficiency with Perkins.