Memphishas been winning pre-season games just like they won regular season games last season. The starters fall way behind and then the bench brings them back. Wait a minute. That’s not what happened last season. Where has the bench come from and why aren’t the starters playing better? Well for one thing it’s pre-season which is a type of Bizzaro World by itself. The starting unit is being tinkered with some in these games with Thabeet and Henry earningthe surprisestart in New Orleans. The bench is playing dramatically more minutesnow than they will in the regular season also. However the biggest difference is the starting five doesn’t want to reveal anything so they are running about 3-4 plays andteams know how to stop those. As the pre-season progressesexpect the Grizzlies to run the starters more each night and start putting in the real offense. The Grizzlies pre-season schedule is front loaded so the team has plenty of time to work on a more complex offense closer to the start of the season. The Grizzlies are 1-6 historically in OKC but only 1-2 against the Thunder there.
Oklahoma City is the darling team of this off-season.Kevin Durant was the mostoutstanding player at the World Championships in Turkey and Russell Westbrook was on the team too. If the Grizzlies want to credit National Team participation as a bonus for Rudy then OKC got twice the bonus from their participation. Nenad Kristic was alsoplayingat the Worlds but he broke his finger and has not played yet in the pre-season. Serge Ibaka filled in nicely as a backup last season but the team recognized it’s main weakness when they traded for Cole Aldrich, a 6-11 center,on draft night. This will be the home opener for the Thunder (just like the games in Atlanta and New Orleans) but the crowd is expected to be quite into this game.
Point Guards:Mike ConleyvsRussell Westbrook
Conley hasn’t looked bad thispre-season as he has attacked the rim much more and created moreopen looksfor teammates in the process.The teammates haven’t exactly capitalized on those opportunities however. That will come with time however.Westbrook had a nice performance in the World Championships this summer and is expected to be in excellent shape for the game. The former UCLA Bruin specializes on defense and uses his freakish athleticism to overpower most PG’s who try to stop him from getting to the hoop. Not a good thing against the smaller Conley.
Advantage: Oklahoma City
Shooting Guards:O J MayovsThabo Sefolosha
Thabo Sefolosha had a breakout season of sorts last year. The 6-7, 4 yr pro from Switzerland started all 82 games for the Thunder and playedover28 minutes a night. The former Bulls draft pick is known as adefensive specialist andis not expected to be a serious scoring threat on the Thunder. Hisjob is to stop someone else from matching Durant and company’s output and he’s pretty good at it. Hollins experimented with Mayo coming off of the bench against New Orleans but it isn’t likely that thiswould be a permanent position change. Mayo brings too much outside shooting for the interior focused Grizzlies to leave on the bench.
Small Forwards:Rudy GayvsKevin Durant
Rudy Gay and Kevin Durant have been playing ball against and with each other for a long time. The former Baltimore products spent this past summer together on the USA National team and Rudy playing behind Kevin should have given him plenty of opportunities to see any weaknesses in his game that could be exploited. Not that Durant has that many weaknesses. A deadly outside shooter and strong rebounder, Durant was the youngest player ever to win a scoring title last year. Rudy struggled last season in matchups against his old rival and unless he comes up with a more intense defensive effort the same is likely to be true this season.
Advantage: Oklahoma City
Power Forwards:Zach RandolphvsJeff Green
This shapes up to be a battle of strengths and weaknesses. Z-Bo is known for his low post scoring ability and offensive rebounding. Jeff Green stretches defenses with his 3 pt shooting and is a defensive workhorse. The problem for Green is his size. At 6-9 and weighing 235 pounds Green is undersized to handle the more physical PF’s in the league and it doesn’t get more physical than Z-Bo when it comes to fighting under the basket. Jeff Green is the forgotten third wheel on the Thunder but his contributions are just as valuable as Durant and Westbrook in the team’s success. Z-Bo however had the advantage over Green last season and there is no reason to think that will change now.
Centers:Marc Gasolvs Serge Ibaka
Cole Aldrich got the symbolic start in the game at Kansas City but Ibaka is still the main backup for the Thunder right now. Ibaka made some nice headway last year averaging 8.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 1.8 bpg in just a little over 20 minutesa game after the All-Star break and his defensive presence went a long way in helping OKC make the playoffs last season. He is extremely raw (think Thabeet) and hasn’t begun to reach his potential. Ultimately Ibaka may be headed for Power Forward since his size is a bit on the light side for a center at 6-10 and 235 pounds. Marc Gasol is neeeding some rest but isn’t likely to get much with Haddadi still in Iran and Thabeet unable to play minutes due to foul trouble.
Benches:Memphisvs Oklahoma City
James Harden leads an experienced and deep OKC bench. The former Arizona State star averaged 9.9 ppg as a rookie last year and has an old school type of game that relies on smart decision making and fundamentally sound skills. Joining Harden off the bench is Mo Peterson, Nick Collison, Daequan Cook,Eric Maynor and rookie Cole Aldrich. Memphis’ bench was terrible last season but a year’s experience and some nice additions have made it less of a sore spot heading to the season. While not likely to be considered a strength heading into the season the bench may not be the gaping hole it was last season either. Thabeet, when able to avoid silly fouls, has shown improvement. Arthur is back in good shape after tearing his pectoral muscle last season. Sam Young, Tony Allen andXavierHenry will battle all pre-season to get a leg up on the competition for minutes. Allen has the lead because of the defensive intensity he brings, Henry is the most talented and Young has the best size to back up Gay.
Advantage: Oklahoma City
UPDATE: The Grizzlies released three players yesterday. Luke Jackson, TreKelly and Kenny Thomas were released to allow the players to try and sign with another NBA team before the start of the season.