Unstoppable Grizzlies From Graceland

The city of Memphis hasn't been this excited since they had Elvis.

Nothing about the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies of 2011 indicated there was anything other than the usual mediocrity to this team going into the postseason. The Grizzlies have been a perennial joke for 16 years, whether in Vancouver in the '90s or its current location as of 2001. In their three best seasons, they went a combined 0-12 in postseason play. In fact, going into this year, that was their franchise record in the playoffs: 0-12.

On paper, they are a team without a superstar and appear to be far from convincing. Their leader is troubled Zach Randolph, who has never been known as one to make any of his teams better and is far from being considered a superstar. The man has had an awful track record with reaching postseason, despite being on several teams with Portland and New York that were more physically talented than his current one.

Beyond that, the Grizz have a collection of solid role players, such as Marc Gasol at center (the less-talented brother of Pau), defensive specialist Shane Battier acquired via a midseason trade, and O.J. Mayo, who has had to adjust to coming off the bench this season. The rest of the team are a collection of castoffs and unprovens.

Meanwhile, the Spurs were coming off one of their all-time best seasons, a 61-21 campaign that left them the No. 1 seed in the West. While the big three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker have been seen as aging, it's not always a noticeable drop-off in skill on the court. The Spurs reloaded this year with Richard Jefferson and George Hill. In short, the veteran Spurs should have had this first round matchup under complete control.

Yet Memphis' only pro sports franchise dominated most of Game 1 in San Antonio, and when the Spurs finally did pull ahead in the final minute, Battier answered with a dagger three with 23.9 remaining that turned out to be the game-winner. While the Spurs took Game 2, they did not count on the madhouse they entered for Games 3 and 4 in Memphis.

It appears the FedEx Forum in Memphis has turned into the newest playoff home court madhouse. This is a phenomenon mostly enjoyed by upstart teams that are enjoying their first playoff success in many years, if ever: see Oklahoma City in 2010, Atlanta in 2008, Golden State in 2007, and Sacramento in the late-'90s to early-2000s. Fans jumped out of their seats on every big hoop and waved white towels non-stop. The Spurs were off their game and the Grizz were spurred on.

Memphis controlled Game 3 until late in the fourth, when Randolph drained a surprise three in the final minute of a tense 2-point contest. San Antonio's chance for a final shot at the buzzer was ruined when veteran Manu Ginobili made a rookie mistake, losing track of the game clock and not getting off a final shot, or calling a timeout when one was available; essentially an inverted Chris Webber. The Grizzlies won by 3 and hammered home the point in Game 4, crushing the top-seeded Spurs by 18 to take a stunning 3-1 series edge.

As most of you know, Game 5 turned into one of the all-time great NBA contests, with fantastic shots from Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal, the latter a wild buzzer-beater three to force OT, all in the final 2.2 seconds. Tony Parker caught fire from mid-range in the overtime and forced the series back to Memphis. This was the kind of game that reinforced the notion that veteran teams with multiple titles tend to make magic happen with their backs against the wall. Perhaps one road win in Memphis and a close-out at home wasn't entirely out of the question.

The Grizz were looking at it from another angle. They simply knew they were playing better in the series. While the Spurs did challenge Memphis late in Game 6, Zach Randolph took over the game's final minutes with dagger shots throughout the fourth quarter, inciting the Memphis crowd, and silencing his critics with 31 points and 11 rebounds, en route to a 99-91 series-clinching victory.

This is the fourth time in NBA history an eight-seed has beaten a one-seed in the first round, and second time in the last five years. Both of these instances have come from the West. The reason being that for over a decade now, the West has been so tightly packed with talented teams that their eight-seed is never a sub-.500 team. Generally, it is more than a few games over .500, while this is never the case in the East. This makes the 1-8 matchup a perennially interesting one while the other No. 8 is generally cannon fodder for the best of the East. In 2007, the Warriors pulled off the feat, as well, against the Dallas Mavericks, who may have still been reeling from their Finals defeat from the previous year.

This leads us to an unlikely second round matchup between the quaint sports cities of Memphis and Oklahoma City. Ten years ago, that last sentence would have drawn many a puzzled arch of the eyebrows. In 2011, it has become reality. While OKC has been seen as the team on the rise thanks to the unstoppable prowess of Kevin Durant and floor general Russell Westbrook, not to mention the shot-blocking and power of Serge Ibaka, Memphis silenced their rabid crowd in Game 1 convincingly, winning 114-101.

If the Grizzlies can keep up this pace against the Thunder, they may well be staring at an improbable Western Conference Final matchup against the two-time defending champion Lakers in a true David/Goliath series with the Grizz riding a tidal wave of momentum. While many undoubtedly have their eyes on the glamorous, more high-profile battle going on now between the Heat and Celtics or even the Lakers and Mavericks, don't overlook the little team from Memphis, Tennessee. They might just be taking their fans on the NBA's wildest ride this side of the '99 Knicks. And you know what that means.

Yes, I'm saying it. The Memphis Grizzlies could be a Finals team.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site