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Living with Greater Expectations: A Season in Memphis

They say the miles make the man. Well, 81 games into the journey that has been the 2014-2015 NBA regular season, the men that make up the Memphis Grizzlies have had a trip for the ages.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

So, how do you measure a year?

In daylights? In sunsets? Midnights, or cups of coffee? Wait...sorry, wrong story/season.

How about in tricks, treats, peaks, and valleys?

Butt slaps? Ripped jerseys? Lost head bands or chemistry-testing trades?

Whether in minutes, tweets, grits, grinds, miles, or memories, there are many ways to reflect on the season of life and basketball that has transpired for these Memphis Grizzlies. Games and plays shine in the depths of our memories like pieces of a movie from which we all know the quotes. Times when GrizzNation held their heads high with pride, times of doubt. Showcases of exemplary athleticism and kindness blend with heart pounding suspensions of space and time where nothing matters but the moment.

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As fans, you secretly live for those moments. They are what competition and sport are all about, for as Vince Lombardi once said...

I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious.

There were plenty of adverse situations facing the Bears of Beale Street this season. They are only a part of the story. On the eve of the regular season finale, as eyes turn from the end of one season of life and love in Memphis to the start of the postseason, let's look back on some of the peaks and valleys that have led to this moment in time.

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Thursday, November 13th, 2014- Memphis Grizzlies 111 vs. Sacramento Kings 109

Do you believe in miracles?

7-1 heading in to the game, their one loss coming at the hands of the eventually playoff-bound Milwaukee Bucks 93-92 five days before, the Grizzlies officially had their first full-blown stinker on their hands. Down 38-16 at the end of the first quarter, it appeared that the hot start had been cooled at the hands of Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins, who both played big games, especially in that first stanza.

Then...the run.

Memphis scored 95 points over the final three quarters, led by a 22 point, 11 assist game from Mike Conley and three 3-point makes in the fourth quarter by Vince Carter. They found the defense that has been their staple through all of the "Grit and Grind" era, holding Sacramento to 19 points in the fourth quarter, half of what they had scored in the first. Even with this herculean effort, "Boogie" Cousins put Sacramento up one with seconds to play.

Then...the miracle.

As Chris Vernon and others have said, that is one for the (hopeful) championship DVD.

Belief comes with the territory for Memphis Grizzlies fans. It isn't just a catchy phrase on a towel; its a part of the psyche. There is nothing more satisfying than belief rewarded.

On this night, the Grizzlies reminded us why we still believe. This will be helpful in April.

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Monday, November 17th, 2014- Memphis Grizzlies 119 vs. Houston Rockets 93

Four nights after the "Memphis Miracle," the Grizzlies were 9-1 after defeating the Detroit Pistons in the third game of a four-game home stand. The final game at FedEx Forum was against the divisional rival Houston Rockets. Houston appeared to have a new-found commitment to defense, and was 9-1 themselves coming into this contest between the two teams with the best records in the NBA at the time. Sure to be a battle of epic proportions, right?

Well...not so much.

Memphis played the role of the Sacramento Kings on this night, lighting up Houston in the first quarter to the tune of 34-18. Then, Memphis went on to win the second quarter (31-24) and the third quarter (32-24), showing the Rockets the full extent of the potential fire power that the Grizzlies have on both ends of the court. After being up 31 going in to the fourth, the Grizzlies took their collective foot off the gas. A blowout win over a top team. Memphis may well be for real.

14 steals and only 10 turnovers themselves alongside 53.5% shooting from Memphis led Houston coach Kevin McHale to say in the post-game interview...

They just beat the hell out of us.

Perhaps those higher expectations are well worth the time of the Grizzly faithful. Memphis would go on to finish the month of November 15-2, with the only loss being to the Toronto Raptors without Courtney Lee, Jon Leuer, Tony Allen, Kosta Koufos, and Beno Udrih (the "flu" game). Blowout wins over Portland and the hated LA Clippers led to the Grizzlies being in an unfamiliar place at the top of the Western Conference standings.

The hunted, not the hunter. The contender, not the dark horse.

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Wednesday, December 17th- Memphis Grizzlies 117 vs. San Antonio 116 in Triple Overtime

As the cold of Winter crossed the nation, Memphis cooled some along with it to start. The possibly chilliest part of the month? Playing the San Antonio Spurs not once, not twice, but thrice. The best matchup of the three? A triple-overtime thriller that had all the feel of a heavyweight boxing match, with punches and counter-punches being thrown by both teams. Big shots from Danny Green and Mike Conley and damn-near impossible buzzer beaters from Tim Duncan and Marc Gasol (from three, no less) made for arguably the best regular season game in Memphis Grizzlies' history.

The month of December itself played out much like the three-game "series" with the Spurs. Memphis took the best-of-three two games to one, and went 8-5 overall in the month. The Grizzlies had a stretch of three overtime games in five days (wins over Charlotte, Philadelphia, and San Antonio) with a huge national television victory over the Golden State Warriors in between. 6-2 in the first 8 games of the month, 21-4, all was beautiful.

2014 ended with a Memphis Grizzlies team looking the part of a championship contender.

Then a four-game losing skid came about, with three of them being at home to Chicago, Utah, and Houston in overtime (all by six points). The fourth loss, a double-digit one to the Cleveland Cavaliers, showed that the Grizzlies were not perfect. Wins over Miami and San Antonio (again) made 2014 end pretty well, 23-8, still looking the part of a contender after a tough month.

2015 had a lot of promise...or so it seemed.

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January 16th, 2015- Memphis Grizzlies 106 vs. Orlando Magic 96

The major move of the 2014-2015 season involved Quincy Pondexter and Tayshaun Prince leaving Memphis (along with a 2019 first round draft pick) in exchange for the services of Jeff Green (and Russ Smith). Jeff Green has been a source of division among Grizzlies fans since his arrival and has had peaks and valleys in his time in Memphis, much like the team itself. The first evidence of what he could bring to the Grizzlies really shined through in his second game with the ball club against the Magic.

Explosive athleticism and ability to attack the rim, especially in transition, with a touch of below average range scoring and seemingly inept (at times) defensive awareness. As time has gone on, Jeff Green has found himself within the schemes and locker room of the Grizzlies more and more (offering to go to the bench to right the chemistry of the starters and fighting through back issues), but his skill set that was on display in this win will be sorely needed as time goes on. Life is made up of these comings and goings, as people rotate in and out of your days like the seasons. January said goodbye to old friends and hello to new ones.

It also said hello to renewed focus and winning, it would appear. An 11-4 record over the month was highlighted by double-digit victories over Dallas and Oklahoma City, plus a 30-point crushing of the Dallas Mavericks. A 35-12 record through January 31st had folks feeling pretty good, as did Marc Gasol's election to be an All-Star Starter, the first in Memphis Grizzlies' history. It was hoped this would be the first "first" of many once the regular season ended.

Nobody said it would be easy.

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February 27th, 2015- Los Angeles Clippers 97 vs. Memphis Grizzlies 79

February was...weird. Like a middle school dance or an episode of "Workaholics," but not in a good way. Memphis went 7-4, a pace similar to the successful December 8-5, but the games were uneven as the team struggled to find themselves alongside the new key piece that was Jeff Green. Big wins over Portland, Atlanta and the Clippers were also met with double-digit losses to Oklahoma City, the Sacramento Kings and...the Clippers, the 18 point loss above.

While Green's adjustment continued to be a focus (0-6 on this particular night), Marc Gasol and Mike Conley shot a combined 7-23 and began to show a common thread over the span of the Grizzlies' late season struggles-to-be that shouldn't surprise anyone: when performing at a high level (& healthy, but more on that later), Gasol and Conley are dominant forces that make Memphis elite. When they're struggling, the Grizzlies are mediocre. Blowout losses continued to be a trend as well.

Hot and cold. Peaks and valleys. Times of uncertainty, times of belief. That belief would be even more tested as March began.

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March 7th, 2015- New Orleans Pelicans 95 vs. Memphis Grizzlies 89

This is when that adversity really comes in to play. Memphis plays a team they should be able to beat. Memphis beats said team 50-38 in the first half. Memphis allows a 33-17 third quarter, eventually loses the game. Inconsistency becomes the Memphis way in March, a month in which the Grizzlies went 9-7 with wins over Chicago, Dallas (again) and Portland (again), making fans feel that the turn of the corner was just a ways away.

Then, on the other hand, a tough loss happened in Boston in which Mike Conley (who was already banged up) goes down with injury, so he sits. Then, Memphis punts a Wizards game the next night, sitting each member of the "core four." Then, a stretch of double-digit losses to three teams the Grizzlies will have to more than likely go through in order to get to their "Greater" goal of the NBA championship in Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland. Banged up, poor communication, poor execution on both ends of the court and a lack of intensity on any given night. Leads to losing in life, and in basketball.

As the Grizzlies cooled, their competition crept closer and closer to their two seed in the Western Conference. Heading to April, the warmth of Spring hopefully would lead to a renewal to Memphis' title dreams.

Hopefully.

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Wednesday, April 8th, 2015- Memphis Grizzlies 110, New Orleans Pelicans 74

Reason for that belief to stay strong. Same Pelicans team that made that big run just a month before, but the foursome of Conley/Gasol/Randolph/Gasol shoot 23-45, or just over 50%, in a huge win that seemed to right the ship. Not just because of the scoring, but the defensive play was back to being elite. New Orleans had quarters of 12, 19 and 19 after a 24 point first quarter as Memphis squeezed the life out of the Pelicans on their home court, which was great considering Memphis had been 4-3 in their last seven home games.

Injuries, though, continued to mount. Tony Allen was out for this New Orleans game and has not been seen on the court since March 27th. Mike Conley, who played in this Pelicans game, has not played since with foot issues. Marc Gasol rolled his ankle in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers this past Saturday. Jeff Green has back problems that have made him questionable for the past few contests. Zach Randolph is dealing with elbow and back problems of his own.

Adversity hits everyone, with a huge smack coming in the form of Klay Thompson and the Golden State Warriors last night. Now, with one game to go, Memphis' fate, and season, are very much up in the air as their hold on the Southwest division title and two seed has slipped away.

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From the fondness for yesterday to the uncertainty of the future, this season in Memphis has mirrored life. Challenges and cheerfulness aside, the look ahead to a murky future makes even the most optimistic member of Grizz Nation pause not for reflection, but for concern. The championship window closing, the pending unrestricted free agency of Marc Gasol, the injury issues threatening a season that once held so much promise. A successful early run leading to a mediocre finish and a first round exit is not what anyone hoped for as the seasons turned.

How the Memphis Grizzlies respond to this moment of adversity will shape the future.

Sport, much like life, is not about the adversity you face. We all face adversity. It is about the response. Time and again, the Memphis Grizzlies have shown an ability to respond in situations and then, inexcusably, not respond in others (game six in last season's playoff series against the Thunder comes to mind). The Grizztory books on this season in Memphis will tell a similar tale; a season of potential that transformed to perpetual question. What will the next game bring? Which team will show up? Is "Greater" still in the cards as all the advantages that come with dominant regular season play slip away?

The good and bad news is that the answer, at least for this season, will be known soon enough. However, much like life, what that new day will bring is anybody's guess, and the potential ramifications of the future cloud the present.

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