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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 10:30 PM

The Western Conference playoff race is now wide open because the Oklahoma City Thunder have fallen back to the pack with the loss of Russell Westbrook. They struggled to shine vs. Houston even though they survived the first round. Now they’ll have to deal with a brutal physical challenge when the resurgent Memphis Grizzlies come calling.

Is Memphis now “the team to beat” in the West? They’ve played at a very high level since sending Rudy Gay to Toronto, eliminating the anvil that had been killing their offense and chemistry. They just won four-in-a-row from Chris Paul and the Clippers. They’ve established playoff superiority over San Antonio in recent memory. Maybe Sunday is the day Memphis makes a statement about a championship run!

Or, maybe it’s the day Oklahoma City reminds everyone that they’re still a #1 seed, and home court advantage is a powerful edge in the postseason.

Let’s run the matchup through JIM HURLEY’S gauntlet of key indicator stats that we’ve been using here in the VSM blog this postseason. The Indiana/New York series will be featured in the Hurley NOTEBOOK Sunday that you can read here in the blog. This preview of Grizzlies/Thunder is exclusive to VSM!

Let’s run the numbers…

 

WON-LOST RECORDS VS. .500 OR BETTER

Memphis: 28-19

Oklahoma City: 30-17

Very similar numbers there…which is telling because Oklahoma City was only two games better in this key stat with Russell Westbrook. And, Memphis didn’t really sparkle until Gay was gone. That suggests Memphis may in fact be the better team vs. quality with the current rosters. Both teams just went 4-2 vs. winning teams in the playoffs. Memphis did that against a #4 seed led by a superstar point guard. Oklahoma City did that against a #8 seed that had been slumping to end the season. Either a toss-up or a slight edge to Memphis in this category.

 

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY RANKINGS

Memphis: #18

Oklahoma City: #2

Memphis became much more efficient when the poor shooting Gay was dispatched. You also saw a lot of offense from them vs. the Clippers because they kept getting to the line and making free throws. Memphis probably isn’t a top 10 defense, but they’re better than #18 right now. Oklahoma City was fantastic with Westbrook. They’re still dynamic as long as Kevin Durant is getting good looks. Memphis will do what it can to slow him down and make the rest of the Thunder beat them. Edge in this category to OKC, but probably by not as much as those numbers make it look.

 

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY RANKINGS

Memphis: #2

Oklahoma City: #3

Two great defenses here. You probably already knew about Memphis. Did you realize Oklahoma City graded out so well during the regular season? They play at a fast pace, which hides their defense. It’s true that that the Thunder had some very poor defensive stretches vs. the Rockets. But, they did play very well in fourth quarters the last three games in halfcourt sets. Edge to Memphis…because they’re healthier. Just don’t sell the OKC defense short.

 

REBOUND RATE RANKINGS

Memphis: #2

Oklahoma City: #5

Memphis is a classic “defense and rebounding” team, (which you’ll notice about Indiana too in the other Sunday game). It’s been very underpublicized this year that Oklahoma City is ALSO a “defense and rebounding” team. The media was obsessed with their offensive star power. The Thunder were a legitimate NBA Championship threat because they were great at everything. Losing Westbrook brings them back to the pack. Handicappers will have to determine if they’ve fallen below the pack or not. 

 

PACE RANKINGS

Memphis: #29

Oklahoma City: #1

The ultimate fast vs. slow meeting. The team that forces their comfort zone on proceedings will enjoy a big edge. Playoff basketball tends to slow down, which favors Memphis. But, fast break points can often be a tie-breaker in a hardfought series…which gives Oklahoma City a chance to counteract any negatives that arise within a wrestling match.

Fascinating matchup. Memphis is certainly positioned well to pull off a seeding upset. They’re built for the playoffs. They’re healthy. They’re confident. And, they’re facing a team that’s had its confidence shaken by a major injury. Could this be a Memphis cakewalk?! Oklahoma City isn’t planning on going anywhere. We’ll learn a lot about their toughness and true title hopes in the first two games of this series.

Vegas legends Kelso Sturgeon, Wayne Root, Jim Hurley, and Richie Bacciellieri have been hard at work making sure they find the best side and total options on the Sunday card. There are two daytime basketball games (this one plus Pacers/Knicks) and a full slate of baseball (including the Dodgers/Giants rivalry game in prime time on ESPN). Check our “buy picks” page for the final word on today’s offerings.

Series previews will continue Monday here on the VSM blog. Make VegasSportsMasters your home all the way through the 2013 NBA Playoffs!

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