OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The new kids in town are trying to take over the Western Conference.
The Memphis Grizzlies already knocked out the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and will now face the Oklahoma City Thunder in a series that ensures one of the NBA’s rising young teams will make it to the conference finals.
The Thunder and Grizzlies were the league’s two youngest teams at the start of last season, then improved their win totals more than any other teams. That rapid ascent has carried both into the second round of the playoffs, with Game 1 on Sunday in Oklahoma City.
“We’re both bad teams that have risen up and become good teams,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said Saturday. “ ... Our transformations started the same way, and they actually were ahead of us. We’re here, and they’re here.”
But who would have ever believed it just two years ago?
The Thunder started out that season 3-29 and were on pace for the worst season in NBA history before a strong finish left them with 23 wins in their first season after relocating from Seattle to Oklahoma City. Memphis finished that year with 24 wins and started the next one 1-8 during the failed Allen Iverson experiment.
Both fired their coaches during the 2008-09 season and hired new ones who paved the way to the postseason.
Scott Brooks led Oklahoma City to a 27-win improvement last season — from 23 to 50 — and was named coach of the year after getting the Thunder into the playoffs.
Hollins produced a 16-win improvement that was the second-best. Then came this year’s breakthrough, with the first playoff win — and series win — in franchise history for the Grizzlies, who have been in Memphis for 10 years after moving from Vancouver.
“I think both teams really have done a good job of just playing hard and learning the game by playing with a lot of effort,” Brooks said. “You can make up for your mistakes and you will improve along the way much quicker if you’re playing with a lot of effort. Memphis does play hard, and I really believe that we play as hard.
“It’s kind of like us in a way that they didn’t give up a couple years ago when they didn’t have a good record either. Both teams just kept punching the clock and getting better every day.”
Each team is built around a superstar who can take over a game, and who just proved it in the first round.
NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant scored 14 of his 41 points in the final 4 minutes of Game 5 to lead Oklahoma City back from a nine-point deficit and finish off Denver. Zach Randolph scored 17 of his 31 in the fourth quarter of the clinching Game 6 against San Antonio.
The Grizzlies got the better of the Thunder in the regular season, winning the series 3-1 as Randolph averaged 26.5 points and 13 rebounds.
Durant, the league’s leading scoring the past two seasons, needed a 40-point performance to get Oklahoma City its only win. Durant still got his numbers against the Grizzlies, but had to work for it while ace defender Tony Allen was busting through screens to harass him.
“I just take pride in my defense,” said Allen, whose 18.8-point average against Oklahoma City was his best against any team this season. “I don’t like getting scored on. Hopefully, all my teammates can help me.
“I’m going to need help with this guy.”
Allen will have reinforcements with Memphis’ addition of another top perimeter defender, Shane Battier, at the trade deadline. And similarly, the Thunder have something new to throw at Randolph: deadline pickup Kendrick Perkins, Allen’s teammate on Boston’s 2008 championship team with the same tough-as-nails demeanor.
Perkins didn’t play in any of the four regular-season meetings, but should allow Serge Ibaka — the NBA’s top shot blocker — to slide over and defend Randolph.
“Memphis is one of the biggest teams in basketball. They have size and strength and toughness, and they’re the best scoring team in the paint,” Brooks said. “So, it’s certainly going to help.”
The two may be labeled the NBA’s teams of the future, but there’s no reason they can’t be successful in the present. Ahead in the Western Conference finals would be a matchup against one of two veteran-laden teams — the Dallas Mavericks or the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
“We don’t feel like we’re just happy to be here or don’t belong,” said the Thunder’s Nick Collison, the only player other than Durant who’s left from the franchise’s days in Seattle.
“We feel like we belong on the court with anybody.”
The postseason is the time to prove it.
“Two young, athletic teams striving for greatness, striving to move the organization to another level, to a top level,” Memphis guard O.J. Mayo said. “They got two great players in Durant and (Russell) Westbrook. We got a great core team right here and we’re just looking forward to putting together a great series.”