OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – A year ago, Memphis blew past Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals.
Back then, Oklahoma City was without dynamic point guard Russell Westbrook because of a season-ending right knee injury from the previous series, and the Thunder were eliminated by the Grizzlies in five games. Westbrook is healthy now, and Oklahoma City is confident the results will be different when the teams meet again this year in the first round of the playoffs, starting Saturday night.
Westbrook’s rare athletic ability is especially difficult to handle because scoring champion Kevin Durant draws so much attention that it limits the options for dealing with the team’s No. 2 scorer and three-time All-Star.
”It’s huge because he’s a great player, and we rely on him for a lot of what we do,” Thunder forward Nick Collison said. ”I think it really hurt us last year for how sudden it was for him to be hurt, and we really didn’t have much time to deal with it. I think we feel better about it this year, going in at full strength. He’s one of our best players, one of our leaders, and we’re much better off with him, that’s for sure.”
Though Westbrook missed quite a few games this season after a third surgery, he returned after the All-Star break and played some of the best basketball of his career. Since Feb. 20, he has averaged 22.3 points, 6.9 assists and 5.4 rebounds while shooting 46 percent from the field in just 28 minutes per game.
”He’s one of the best players in the league,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. ”His numbers are first- or second-team all-NBA numbers. Those are amazing numbers.”
Westbrook played with minute restrictions in his most recent return and would sit out one of two games during back-to-backs. Now, Brooks said there are no limits.
Memphis point guard Mike Conley is looking forward to the matchup.
”You always want to test yourself and compete at a high level, so that’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to be a challenge,” Conley said.
Conley’s backup, rookie Nick Calathes, was suspended Friday for 20 games for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy. The league said in a release that Calathes, who averaged 4.9 points and 2.9 assists, tested positive for tamoxifen.
Here are five things to watch during the series between Oklahoma City and Memphis:
SLOWING A SUPERSTAR: Memphis will need to contain Durant, a tougher challenge than ever now that he has rounded out his game. He has done it all this year, averaging 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists while shooting just over 50 percent from the field.
Most of Durant’s numbers were slightly lower in the season series against Memphis, but he helped Oklahoma City win three of the four meetings.
”You’re not going to limit him,” Memphis guard Mike Miller said. ”Keep him off the foul line. If you can do that, you have a chance against him. He’s going to get his. You’ve just got to do a good job on him, and we’ve got wings that can defend. It should be a good matchup.”
COACHING EXPERIENCE: Lionel Hollins was fired after leading the Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals last season, and new coach Dave Joerger is making his NBA playoff debut. Joerger has been a successful postseason coach at lower levels, but how he handles critical moments at this level will bear watching.
Brooks is heading to the playoffs for the fifth straight season. He was NBA Coach of the Year in 2009-10, has been to the NBA Finals and will be coaching his 55th playoff game on Saturday.
TEMPO CONTROL: Oklahoma City likes to run; Memphis prefers to slow the pace.
In the regular season, the Thunder ranked fifth out of 30 teams in scoring (106.2 points per game), sixth in fast-break points (16.6) and eighth in points off turnovers (17.7). Memphis ranked 27th in scoring (96.1), 24th in fast-break points (10.6) and 18th in points off turnovers (10.6). A slower pace favors Memphis, a bigger, more methodical team.
BAD BLOOD? These teams will meet for the third time in four years in the playoffs, and such familiarity often creates tension.
”That’s what makes playoff basketball fun, and we’re expecting it to be that way,” Miller said.
Memphis’ Zach Randolph and Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins are especially volatile. Both were thrown out of a regular-season game in 2012 after an altercation. The Thunder tend to be volatile anyway – they led the league with 52 player technicals and were second with 41 team technicals.
THE HOT TEAM? Oklahoma City has the better record and the higher seed, but Memphis is playing better basketball. The Grizzlies have won five in a row, including wins over playoff teams Miami and Dallas. The Thunder had lost two straight before coming back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter of the regular-season finale at home against Detroit to win in the final minute.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP