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Up & Comers in The W. Conference

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Up & Comers in The W. Conference

http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2010/jan/22/up-and-coming/

Not long after the Grizzlies dispatched the Phoenix Suns in front of the Grizzlies' first sellout crowd and before a national television audience, Rudy Gay checked his Twitter page.


Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant has taken note of the rejuvenated Grizzlies and stays in contact with Rudy Gay. "Like us, they're playing hard and are getting better," Durant said.

The Grizzlies forward is used to reading well-wishes from a cross section of admirers.

This is the one that Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant sent Gay on Monday: "great win man ... yall ballin."

Gay responded in kind: "So are yall. Us young teams gotta prove ourselves this year."

Suffice it to say, the NBA's youngest team (Memphis) and the second-youngest (Oklahoma City) are earning their wings.

The Griz and Thunder are often mentioned in the same sentence whenever NBA coaches, players and media talk about the future of the Western Conference. Each squad has taken the league by storm with rapid and compelling development.

Entering their matchup tonight in FedExForum, the Thunder owns the seventh playoff seed in the West while the Griz sit just 1½ games back from a postseason berth.

Both teams seem to be ahead of schedule given the tear-down-to-build-up approach each franchise adopted a few seasons ago. There may be a mild debate about which team is ahead of the other but this much is clear: The Griz and Thunder are in position to ascend in the conference at a similar pace, and each franchise is keeping an eye on the other.

"We're trying to be humble, especially when we win big games," Durant said. "We continue to think team first. I think that's what they're doing right now as well. You play as a team and you can win games. ... Like us, they're playing hard and are getting better. (Their record) is a big change from the past two years."

Memphis (22-19) is on pace to win 44 games, which would mark a 20-game improvement over last season. Oklahoma City (24-18) is poised to perform even better given it won just 23 games last season. So intertwined are the teams' success that the NBA can't resist. The league's magazine, "Hoop," was in Memphis to produce a story drawing parallels to the teams.

"Hoop" plans to run a cover photo featuring the Thunder's Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green along with Gay, O.J. Mayo and Zach Randolph.

"They have a nice squad and we have a nice squad," Griz coach Lionel Hollins said. "They have a dominant young scorer in Kevin Durant and we have a dominant young scorer in Rudy Gay. We're two good, young teams."

Gay, however, resisted the urge to proclaim the teams rivals.

"Playoff teams have rivals. We're not there yet," Gay said. "When we get there and have big games in the playoffs, then we can consider them a rival."

At the moment, the Griz consider the Thunder their equal even if there are only a couple of similarities.

Both teams benefit from strong rebounding, and the Griz and Thunder take care of the basketball about the same, averaging about 15 turnovers per game.

Beyond that, the teams have generated attention by playing a different brand of basketball.

The Grizzlies are more potent offensively as the only team in the league with three players averaging at least 18 points per game: Randolph (20.8), Gay (20.5) and Mayo (18.4).

The Thunder uses its length and athleticism to operate as one of the league's better defensive teams. Oklahoma City ranks among the NBA's top 10 in blocks (5.7) and steals (7.6)

"They have a lot of weapons. They have great inside scorers. They have some terrific players," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "They're playing together and they're playing hard. They've been playing really well at home. It's going to be tough. We'll have to go in and play well to beat them there."

While the Griz are 15-5 in FedExForum, the Thunder makes up for a 12-9 home mark by playing with an identical record on the road.

Gay and Durant seem to have the same theme no matter when they tweet.

Both players recognize that their teams are no longer an easy out.

"They're definitely tough. I can see how they win the games they win," Gay said. "I can't wait to play them because we haven't beaten them this year. It's always a fun game. They're as good as us. Let me change that. We're as good as them."

-- Ronald Tillery: 529-2353

Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City

When, where: 7 p.m. today at FedExForum


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