Western Conference Finals: A Dispatch from Game Three

Kevin C. Cox

Scattered thoughts on the first Grizzlies home game of the Western Conference Finals, in which the Grizzlies lost to the Spurs 104-93 in overtime.

1.

There was a sense, after game two, that the Grizzlies had closed the gap in that game and figured out a way to beat the Spurs as they rallied from a huge deficit to force overtime on the road. They lost the game, but the fight they showed, and the fact that they were able to get back to Grizzlies basketball, made people optimistic in a way that maybe they shouldn’t have been.

The fact that the Grizzlies were down 0–2 to the Clippers in the first round, and that that series had also followed the pattern of a first game blowout and a tight finish to game two, made Grizzlies fans feel like this was the same thing. Like the Grizzlies were going to be able to claw back into this series by making a stand at home. But now, it feels like the season might finally be slipping away, receding like a wave on the beach.

The Grindhouse wasn’t enough tonight. This is the first night the Grindhouse hasn’t been enough this postseason. The optimism and the noise and the smell of the river rolling past downtown Memphis wasn’t enough.

2.

I was having flashbacks the whole first quarter. I was sitting in the first row of the club level of the Forum during Game 1 of the first round series against the Clippers last year, and I sat there and watched as the Grizzlies’ lead grew larger, and larger, and larger. They’re going to make a run eventually, I kept telling myself. This isn’t real. This doesn’t feel right. The vibe in the building was the same. Panicked, anxious, raw, rather than the rowdy, assertive crowds we’re used to.

I texted my wife somewhere around the three minute mark of the first, well after Pop yanked all five Spurs starters and replaced them with bench players. I’ve seen this movie before, it said. I didn’t want to be right, but I knew what I was seeing.

There was no way that lead was going to stay that big.

I felt that in my bones.

3.

I think a lot of the talk that surfaced after the Griz went down 0–2 to the Clippers is going to pop back up. "Should Lionel Hollins be re-signed?" "Is this the end of the Zach Randolph era in Memphis?" "Are the Grizzlies going to keep rolling with what they’ve got, or will they rebuild around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol?"

It’s unavoidable. There are certainly issues with the way Hollins has coached some of this series, and there are certainly issues with the way the Grizzlies have played—especially some of the bench players. There’s no way to argue that Zach Randolph has been anything other than a train wreck in this series so far. He’s not scoring, and he’s not making free throws. He’s rebounding, but how many of those are offensive rebounds of his own misses?

The other day on Twitter, I said the over/under on the number of Grizzlies starters that would be starters next year was 3.5. I stand by that, but I think I’d take the over. Obviously Conley and Gasol will be back. The Grizzlies are fools if they don’t re-sign Tony Allen. But will Tayshaun Prince be back, as much as I love him? Will the Grizzlies pull the plug on the Zach Randolph era, or will he be back?

I don’t think tonight is the night for me to talk about that. I’ve got that sinking feeling that settles in when you see the end of something. When you feel like everything is breaking down around you and all you can do is watch and say "Yep, it’s over." That’s what this feels like right now. Like it’s over.

But what, exactly, is over? That’s yet to be determined.

One would like to think that we’ll see the same familiar faces surrounded by a better supporting cast next year. Certainly Darrell Arther is barely a shell of his former (2011 Spurs-killer) self. Keyon Dooling hasn’t been great, but maybe he’d be better if he hadn’t been retired for most of the regular season. Ed Davis needs to get stronger and get more aggressive. The Grizzlies seem to like Donté Green a lot.

We’ll see. What is certain, at this point, is that something needs to be different roster-wise. It’s inarguable that the Grizzlies need more outside shooting. It can’t just be Quincy Pondexter. One guy is too easy to stop.

But do they just reload for next year and make another run, or do they take this as a chance to strip out what’s working but can’t improve and replace it with something better?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t know what I’d do. I’m glad it’s not my decision.

4.

My biggest fear is that a poor performance in the Western Conference Finals[1] will invalidate some of the huge gains the Grizzlies have made this season. That the fans who haven’t ever cared before will see the Grizzlies get dropped by the Spurs and say "See? Told you." That people will think that the meaning of this team is somehow lessened by this showing in the Conference Finals so far.

It’s easy to forget how hard it is to get here when the team has been good for a while. Ask Marc Iavaroni. Ask this Grizzlies team that was 29th out of 30 teams in attendance. Ask the folks that watched the first Memphis Grizzlies team in the Pyramid in 2001.

This is not easy. This team is in the Western Conference Finals. This stuff is the reason we have an NBA team, even if they don’t advance to the next round. This is what it’s all about. If you don’t want to watch this team anymore because they lost in the Conference Finals, you never should’ve been watching to begin with.

5.

There was this tweet from Mike Prada during the game that made me excited about what’s to come, no matter what shakes loose in the offseason, whether the Grizzlies make it to the Finals, or win a title this year, or whether they don’t win another game.

Ed Davis is going to be really good, y’all. Sending him in to bang with Tim Duncan in the Western Conference Finals was probably not the right moment for Lionel Hollins to suddenly decide to start playing Davis again. It hasn’t worked this series, and I hate that Davis sat so much during the regular season and in the first two rounds. One would think that some playing time would have maybe had him a little more prepared.

I think Ed Davis is going to be great. I think he’s had some issues fitting in here since getting traded from Toronto, where he was a starter, but I don’t think those fit issues can’t be fixed by giving him a full training camp and preseason to get into the flow of the way the Grizzlies work.

Ed Davis, y’all. Big Boss Man.

6.

It’s easy to forget how good this Spurs team is because a Grizzlies beat a weakened version of them in 2011. Make no mistake: that team didn’t beat the Spurs just because the Spurs were injured. Everyone remembers that Zach Randolph pretty much held Antonio McDyess’ hand as he went to permanent NBA sleep, right? And that Darrell Arthur was still mobile enough and athletic enough to be a one man pick and roll hit squad, blowing up every P&R set he could get his hands on? And that Greivis Vasquez has gone on to rack up a bunch of triple-doubles playing for the Hornets?

Yeah. That was a good team beating another good team at less than maximum strength.

But that year isn’t this year. This year’s Spurs squad has quietly beaten the crap out of everyone, standing there silently while bludgeoning other teams to death one by one. They execute their motion offense flawlessly. They defend well. They finally have bigs that can handle the Z-Bo onslaught—especially since 2013 Z-Bo isn’t as dynamic as 2011 Z-Bo, and isn’t able to put the team on his back in quite the same manner against the Spurs anymore.

Tony Parker is playing out of his mind. Tim Duncan, maybe the best power forward ever to play the game, is playing out of his mind. Manu Ginobili is getting old, but he’s not dead yet. This year’s Spurs team is really good. They’re in the Western Conference Finals just like we are.

Before the series, I thought these two teams were evenly matched. To me, the fact that two of the three games have gone into overtime proves that. The fact that the Spurs have won both overtime games proves to me, anyway, that the Spurs are just that slight bit better. They’re just better. This is a group of guys playing for San Antonio that want to win one more ring, because they’re up against the hard barriers of age. This might be their last, best shot. They are not going to lose easily.

It’s insane how good they are. It’s really, really crazy. This year’s Grizzlies team is the best team in the history of the franchise, and they’re in the Conference Finals, and they’re losing because as good as they are, the Spurs are just that little bit better.

I don’t know what they can do about it at this point.

7.

I was sitting in the media dining area watching the ESPN crew talk about the Grizzlies before the game, and all I could think about was right after the Rudy Gay trade, when Jalen Rose expressed his disbelief that the Grizzlies traded Gay, saying he was a "game changing small forward."

Of course there are people—a lot of people who have never watched a Grizzlies game until they made the second round of the playoffs, and certainly a lot of people who haven’t been around since Shane Battier was shipped to Houston for him—who have now started saying the Grizzlies miss Rudy Gay.

The Grizzlies are in the Western Conference Finals. They do not miss Rudy Gay. If you think Rudy Gay would be helping this team get past the Spurs, you aren’t someone who’s spent a lot of time watching this team. Rudy Gay is a terrible shooter from three-point range. He’s a ball stopper, and he’s a terrible ball handler. He has upsides, but his downsides would be exploited mercilessly by this Spurs team.

And, let’s be real, they probably wouldn’t have made it this far without the shift of the team’s offense to a focus on Conley, Gasol, and Randolph.

Who do the Grizzlies really miss against the Spurs?

It’s not Rudy Gay. It’s not O.J. Mayo.

They miss Shane Battier. In 2011, Battier’s shooting spaced the floor for Randolph to go to work. He’s as good of a defender as Tayshaun Prince, and he’s a streaky shooter who no one can afford to leave open.

They miss Shane Battier.

8.

I don’t think I have it in me at this point to write any more about what the Grizzlies mean to the city of Memphis. This city has been lifted by this team, and we love them.

There’s an attitude shift happening all across the city of Memphis right now. We used to be a city of pessimists here, thinking everything that could break the wrong way for Memphis would. We used to read and hear the negative things people said about our city, and part of every Memphian would say "Well, they’ve got a point."

That doesn’t happen anymore.

People believe in Memphis now. People want to stay here, want to live here, want to fix the things that have plagued this city for so long: the poverty, the remains of racism, the institutional segregation, the blight. People are proud to be from this town. Nothing comes easy here, but what does come is that much sweeter for it.

It’s impossible to deny that this Grizzlies team, going out and pummeling the rest of the league for the last three years, has been part of that. There’s a sense of identity at play: Memphis looks at the Grizzlies and sees themselves. The players—especially Zach Randolph, who has said this, and Marc Gasol, who went to high school here—look at the city of Memphis and they see themselves. They haven’t had anything easy. They have to fight for what they get.

The fight of the Grizzlies has rekindled the fight of Memphis. Yeah, yeah, people were proud of Memphis before 2011. But it’s spreading. It’s building. It’s a strong uniting force, and it’s something I don’t think could happen in any other NBA city.

Our city needed this Grizzlies team. Just like they needed us.

9.

So it’s sad to feel that the writing is on the wall.

Do you know where that saying comes from? What the writing on the wall in the Bible story was?

It’s in the book of Daniel. There’s a feast going on, hosted by Belshazzar, king of Babylon. Writing appears on the wall, and it says:

You have been weighed in the balance and have been found wanting.

That’s where it feels like the Grizzlies are this morning. Wanting.

It’s not too late; there are still games to be played. But it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot more they can give. Miracles happen. We, and the Grizzlies, could use one.


  1. And let’s not forget that there are whole franchises that have never made it this far into the playoffs. Franchises older than the Grizzlies.

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