Once again, it is the time of the year for filling out March Madness brackets and talking trash around the water cooler to those in your office bracket pool. Johnson from accounting is picking Florida and you are probably feeling lucky and picking Wichita State. Neither of you truthfully know who’s going to win the NCAA tournament, but both of you have your reasons for picking the teams that you did, and God bless you both for taking the time to fill out a bracket.
But while the most maddening weekend in sports is approaching, NBA teams are entering an important stretch of basketball of their own. Over the next 3-4 weeks, NBA teams will be jockeying for playoff positioning, seeding, and also draft order. Fortunately, the Memphis Grizzlies happen to be one of the teams battling for playoff position and seeding instead of a high draft pick. But while the Grizzlies still have work to do in terms of shaking the pesky Phoenix Suns to clinch a playoff berth, they also have to start thinking about positioning and making sure they face the right team in the playoffs. While it is true that the more wins you get, the higher the seed, it is not necessarily true that the higher the seed, the better the matchup. This is basketball bracketology 101. You would rather get a lower seed to face a more favorable team in the opening round of the playoffs than get a higher seed with a less favorable matchup. E.g. The Golden State Warriors were much better off facing the #1 seeded Dallas Mavericks as the #8 seed in the 2007 NBA playoffs than they would have been had they been the #6 seed facing off against the #3 seeded San Antonio Spurs. The San Antonio Spurs would have eaten the Warriors for lunch had they gotten the chance, but as we all know, the Golden State Warriors instead faced the Dallas Mavericks, which resulted in one of the most memorable post-season upsets in NBA history.
The Grizzlies find themselves in a rather similar situation as those Warriors. With the right matchup, they too could pull off a surprising first round upset, but it might be better that they finish in the #8 spot than in the #6 spot. This of course depends on which teams are slotted in the seeds 1-3. With this in mind, I will argue why the Grizzlies should hope to get whatever seed is required to align themselves with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the opening round of the playoffs.
As it stands, the Grizzlies are currently the #8 seed in the Western Conference, slotted to face the Spurs, who have the #1 seed in the West. The Thunder, who I believe is the team they should hope to face is the #2 seed in the Western Conference. This means that at this point, the Grizzlies need to leapfrog the Mavericks, who are currently in possession of the #7 seed in the West. But as I have implied, if the Thunder were to get the #1 spot and pass the Spurs, then the Grizzlies should secretly hope to remain behind the Mavericks, but obviously ahead of the Suns, locking themselves into the #8 spot.
The Grizzlies should hope to face the Thunder because they have the defense to slow down Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and also the front court to succeed against Serge Ibaka. To put it simply, the Grizzlies are built to beat the Thunder in a 7 game series. The Thunder heavily rely on the offensive potency of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in order to win games. Both players on average combine for over 50 points each night with some scoring support coming from Serge Ibaka (15.2 ppg), but not much from anyone else. The Thunder used to get that extra needed scoring punch from James Harden and later Kevin Martin, but both players are now on different teams, which means that the Thunder need Westbrook and Durant to do even more. I understand that adding Caron Butler helps to take the pressure off as does Reggie Jackson, but make no mistake, this team misses the presence of James Harden and even the presence of Kevin Martin.
The reason why the absence of Martin and Harden is crucial for the Grizzlies, is because it allows them to instead focus all their defensive efforts on stopping Westbrook and Durant. Since Durant is impossible to stop, the Grizzlies simply can focus on slowing down and possibly stopping Russell Westbrook by putting Tony Allen and Courtney Lee on him all night. Back when Harden was on the Thunder, the key used to be to slow him down, which the Grizzlies were very successful at. But now that he’s gone, they can simply focus on Westbrook and make life hell for him when he’s trying to score.
Now while stopping or at least slowing down Westbrook is something that the Grizzlies can do, what they also can now do to take down the Thunder is score the basketball and stretch the floor thanks to the additions of Mike Miller and Courtney Lee. The Grizzlies already can score effectively inside on the Thunder thanks to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but now that they have Courtney Lee and Mike Miller, the Grizzlies can now also score from the outside, which frees up the play in the paint to succeed.
The bottom line is this: The Grizzlies can slow down the Thunder thanks to their defense and score enough points to win. If the Thunder had James Harden or even Kevin Martin, I’d say this wouldn’t be a very good matchup for the Grizzlies. But since the Thunder lack that extra scoring punch, the Grizzlies should have no trouble slowing down Russell Westbrook, which I think is the main thing they need to be able to do in order to pull off a first round upset over the Thunder.
—Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord