The Grizzlies, in their comparatively brief history, have had several teams that could be considered their rival. It could be the Dallas Mavericks, who are in our division, who swept us in the first round of the playoffs in 2006 en route to the NBA Finals, and who are always tough to beat -- and who now have acquired the services of our esteemed friend Ovinton J’Anthony Mayo.
It could be the San Antonio Spurs, who swept the Grizzlies in their first-ever playoff series back in 2004, and then provided 2011’s first-ever playoff win, first-ever series win, and set up the rest of 2011’s playoff run, which we’ll discuss here momentarily.
It could be the Los Angeles Clippers, against whom the Grizzlies faced off in last year’s ugly, soul-crushing seven game atrocity, during which Reggie Evans’ nut grabbing and Zach Randolph’s nuclear attack on Blake Griffin’s face were only a small part of a maelstrom of ugly basketball, flopping, clogged-toilet offense and the game which shall not be mentioned, the likes of which we’ll hopefully never see again at FedEx Forum.
It could, if you’re a weirdo, be the Toronto Raptors, I guess, since they were the NBA’s other Canadian expansion team in the 1995–96 season. But, like I said, if you think that, you’re probably a weirdo.
All of these teams are teams with whom the Grizzlies have staged epic battles and come out victorious, and all of these are teams who the Grizzlies respect as competitors (except probably the Clippers). But there’s only one team that this can really be, even though so far they’ve only played one (instant classic) playoff series against each other.
I was at Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals on May 9, 2011. I went with some friends, hoping the Grizzlies could win two in a row and go back to Oklahoma City leading the Thunder three games to one. Everybody in the building could taste the Conference Finals.
Three hours and fifty-two minutes later, at one in the morning, all 19,000 of us staggered out into Beale Street, knowing we’d witnessed an incredible event, a basketball game for the ages, played between two teams who absolutely refused to lose the game.
Eventually the Grizzlies just ran out of players. By the third overtime, after a series of Mike Conley and Greivis Vasquez miracle threes to keep us hanging in there, Conley and O.J. Mayo (who had 18 points, and made 4 of 6 from beyond the arc) had fouled out, and all ten players on the court looked close to collapse. Marc Gasol played 57:08. Zach Randolph played 55:56. Ish Smith managed to play 47 seconds. For the Thunder, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both topped 50 minutes, and James Harden played 49. Durant and Westbrook combined for 75 points compared to Gasol and Randolph’s 60.
Overwhelmed, tired, but uplifted by fight we’d seen in our Grizzlies, we wandered back to our cars, whispering quietly about what a game we’d just seen. Nevermind that I had to be at work in six hours. Nevermind that it took three days for my voice to come back, just in time to lose it again screaming at the top of my lungs during Game 6. The Thunder, the Grizzlies, and everyone in the building hung in there until the last second.
Those are the games on which rivalries are built. Since then (Game 4), the Grizzlies and Thunder have played each other seven times, and the Thunder have won five. The Thunder are fresh off last year’s NBA Finals, which is where the Grizzlies want to be. One of the key teams — maybe the key team — standing in their way are the Thunder. (Sure, those other teams I’ve already mentioned, the Mavericks, Spurs, and Clippers, are among those in the way, too. But they’ve all got their eyes on the Thunder as well.)
Another thing that makes Grizzlies/Thunder feel like a rivalry is the difference between the two teams. The Grizzlies are a tough, physical, grind-it-out type of basketball team, who will come in and beat you down defensively, take you out of your game, and then score just enough points with the Two-Headed Gasol/Randolph Low Post Monster to beat you. The Thunder, while their inside game is improving, are more of a jump-shooting team, built around the dynamic, completely unstoppable scoring of Kevin Durant and the mercurial Westbrook. There's a definite contrast between the two teams that makes them feel qualitatively different.
They’ve been where we want to go, we’ve already had one epic seven-game battle with them, (not to mention it was a win at Oklahoma City that gave us "All Heart, Grit, Grind") and they’re the #1 guys standing in our way going forward. I’d say that makes the Oklahoma City Thunder our biggest rival.
Seriously, though, it’s not the Raptors.