The Oklahoma City Thunder fared rather well against the vast majority of teams in the NBA during the regular season, losing just 22 games. Only three teams won their season series against the West's top seed.
The Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder's opponent in the second-round series that begins Sunday afternoon, are one of them. For OKC to continue its run to the NBA Finals without point guard Russell Westbrook, it will need to beat one of the league's stiffest opponents to do so.
Even during the regular season with a healthy Westbrook, the Thunder couldn't overwhelm a big, physical Memphis team. Though the Grizzlies didn't get the kind of prolific performances from Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol that became commonplace in their opening series against the Clippers, the team consistently had the advantage over OKC on the glass during the regular season.
That rough play from Randolph also led to some bad blood between the rosters, as Z-Bo and Kendrick Perkins got into an altercation that resulted in both players being ejected from the teams' first match-up this season. It will be interesting to see if those memories linger going into this series.
Here's a quick breakdown of the Grizzlies-Thunder season series and what it all means going into the Western Conference semifinals.
The Grizzlies won the regular season series 2-1 under circumstances quite different than those we'll see this month.
In the first game, current Toronto Raptor Rudy Gay led Memphis to a 107-97 victory over OKC on Nov. 14, the same game that saw Randolph get ejected in the final minutes. Months later, in the Grizzlies' first game following the Gay trade, the Thunder won a lopsided 106-89 game.
The season series ended on March 20 with an exciting 90-89 overtime win for Memphis. With the Grizzlies able to slow the game down to their plodding level, they pulled off the victory at home on a buzzer-beater from Gasol.
What's different now?
For one thing, Westbrook is out and that totally changes the Thunder as a team. While Reggie Jackson is a solid player in his own right, the ending of Oklahoma City's series against the Houston Rockets revealed the team's vulnerability without their second-best player.
The removal of Gay from the equation also seems to change things, particularly with Durant expected to assume an especially huge role going forward. Gay likely would have been one of the key guys expected to defend Durant, who played well against Memphis this season.
What can we take away from all this?
That the Grizzlies are a very legitimate threat to OKC's title hopes. Even without Gay to face up against KD, Memphis has looked none the worse in the past couple months without its former leading scorer, continuing to beat up on talented teams with defense, size and physicality.
Without Westbrook to break down the Grizzlies' defensive sets and put pressure on opponent, Durant will likely need to come up with a brilliant performance given how Memphis fared against the Clippers. Can he do it? Sure, but the Grizzlies aren't going to make it easy.