"Playing hard is not enough"
Marc Gasol, on November 11 after 100-84 loss to Warriors
We were just halfway through the first month of the 2015-2016 season when the Grizzlies underwent their first reality check. Blow out losses against contenders and a bumpy start for a 3-6 record placed the whole Grit and Grind philosophy under suspicion.
It became clear then, if it hasn't already, that Memphis' goal turned into making the playoffs. Grit and grind cannot work without smart offensive sets for open shots, effective defensive help, etc. It's not just about playing hard; it's about playing efficiently and having talent.
As the season went by, the level of adversity soared with the loss of both centers (Marc Gasol and Brandan Wright) and both point guards (Mike Conley and Mario Chalmers) for the rest of the year. In addition to other injuries and trades, the Grizzlies went on to set a record for the largest roster in an NBA season with 28 players.
How many different players took the court at some point for each team during 2015-16 season? (RIP Grizzlies) pic.twitter.com/dVQRzMr6hB— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 24, 2016
With that gloomy prospect, a bunch of role and veteran players were joined by rookies and inexperienced players to face the San Antonio Spurs in a playoff series. The Texas team has the second best record this year (67-15), an extremely solid defense, and a non-strident but highly efficient offense.
The well-oiled machine, as the Spurs are also known, is riddled with future hall of famers (Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili), well-established star players (Aldridge and Leonard), and a deep bench. Not even the most optimistic would have dared to bet against a sweep.
After two dominant wins by San Antonio, the Grizzlies battled in game three at the FedEx Forum, only to eventually lose and face elimination in their home ground. However, Memphis showed personality, heart, and endeavor. That's the reason why fans always feel proud about this team.
Game four, whose preface witnessed Conley's reception of this year's NBA Sportsmanship Award, followed similar parameters to game three. The Grizzlies fought for every rebound and every loose ball, managing to impose a slow tempo and keep the score low. After an electricity outage that stopped the game for nearly 20 minutes, the score was tight at halftime (47-45).
Lance Stephenson and Chris Andersen provided a spark off the bench. The former finished with a game-high 26 points and the latter pulled down eight offensive rebounds (13 total). Vince Carter went for 4 for 4 from the perimeter and the Grizzlies' second unit competed against the best scoring bench in these playoffs.
San Antonio's strategy against the Grizzlies have been clear in the last couple of years. The Spurs pack the paint every time they face Memphis. That forces Randolph and company to take tough shots or to resort to three point shooting.
Other than Carter, the Grizzlies went 1 for 9 from distance. This is a facet Memphis strongly struggled with in the Grit and Grind era. It's unfathomable that the front office hasn't surrounded Gasol and Randolph with sharp shooters during these years.
The Spurs took advantage of the Grizzlies' poor shot selection and six costly turnovers in the third quarter to explode for a 37 point effort during those 12 minutes. They quickly built a double digit lead, thanks in part to the aggressive play of Tony Parker and many transition points. When you play such a solid team as San Antonio, it's very hard to come from behind.
Zach Randolph and Matt Barnes improved their shooting percentages and had 15 points each, but it wasn't enough against the Spurs. Led by Kawhi Leonard, undoubtedly the MVP of this series, San Antonio kept the game under control the rest of the way with balanced scoring.
Memphis says goodbye to this season after losing game four as the Spurs complete the sweep. Considering the circumstances, it's been a remarkable year for the undermanned Grizzlies. They have faced a number of setbacks like no other team but still made the playoffs and competed against the most successful franchise of the 21st century.
The crowd well understood the situation and credited the spirited effort, holding up towels that read 'All Heart' as the game ended. Both coaches Dave Joerger and Gregg Popovich also highlighted the team's intensity and energy. There is nothing to blame the Grizzlies for. They have tried their best out of a shorthanded squad against one the top teams in this league.
ICYMI: Popovich on Griz: It wasn't a fair fight and they didn't care. They played with a lot of heart and fortitude. https://t.co/bGMPgDN3sa— Ronald Tillery (@CAGrizBeat) April 24, 2016