It’s time for the next installment of Grizzly Thoughts, and for Game Four I have quite the guest to talk through all things Memphis Grizzlies with. I had the opportunity to chat with Ryan Ruocco of ESPN, who will be on the call for the national broadcast of Grizzlies vs. Spurs tonight at 7:00 CT. He had lots of complimentary things to say about Memphis and this Grizzlies squad; if you’re looking for reasons to have hope, you’ve come to the right place.
JOE MULLINAX (@JoeMullinax) - Thanks for chatting with me, Ryan. Obviously you’ve been paying attention to the series. What were your overall thoughts on Game Three? The Fizdale press conference was the story heading in, and the disparity in foul shot attempts wasn’t as profound, but coming out of Game Three did the Grizzlies figure out a way to attack the Spurs?
RYAN RUOCCO (@RyanRuocco) - First and foremost I think what David Fizdale did was brilliant and necessary for his team. It had a positive and tangible effect on Game Three. The Spurs controlled a vast majority of the first two games. What he did was take the narrative away from “here we go again” to galvanization and belief. That is necessary when a team is in a mental rut. It put the focus back on a togetherness with his unit.
It also spoke to the fans - the Memphis fans can feel a little forgotten or jilted. Those (Memphis) fans rally around the fact that they were being stood up for by David Fizdale. Ian Eagle (fellow play by play announcer) called the game for TNT and he said the crowd was so loud his ears were still ringing afterward. They had never heard or seen a head coach get that kind of ovation. The rant and the resulting energy in FedExForum had a clear role in that Game Three win.
MULLINAX - There really is a veteran feel to this team, obviously, and that was partly the cause for the Grizzlies kind of limping to the finish line of the regular season. It was good to once again see in Game Three the team this city fell in love with for their effort and intensity. The environment certainly played a role. There were bears choke slamming bears through tables, “Take That for Data” bootleg T-Shirts...Memphis is a unique spot. I live in D.C. currently and there really isn’t that kind of connection with a professional sports team here for whatever reason. The Grizzlies and the city of Memphis have a real bond that seems uncommon in modern pro sports.
You travel the country calling games. How unique is the bond between Memphis and the Grizzlies? Who does it remind you of?
RUOCCO- The Portland Trail Blazers are a decent comparison, but it really reminds me of the Oklahoma City Thunder. You’re the only show in town, your city is overlooked as a potential destination in free agency - there’s an extra chip on your shoulder that brings real harmony between the team, the players, and the city. You hear people that have been here or even new guys like Fizdale; it’s clear that there is a very defined heartbeat of the city that connects with the team. That’s rare among other cities for a variety of reasons (more than one team, other things going on).
I’ve aIways been impressed with Grizzlies fans - I can remember six years ago driving through Memphis, we stopped there and my co-host back then and I were blown away by how many random conversations we had that came back to the Grizzlies. The knowledge and passion in random encounters with people on Beale Street while we were asking for directions - the fans really know their stuff. In the years since, I really appreciate just how in tune they are to the game.
MULLINAX - I am very jealous that you’re currently in Memphis. Hopefully you have some time to get some good food while you’re there. The Spurs, of course, are one of the few teams that have been able to compete and stand toe to to with LeBron James during his time essentially running the NBA. But the players of that era are aging - Tim Duncan has retired, Manu Ginobili has yet to score in the playoffs and was a DNP-CD in the second half of Thursday night’s game, and Tony Parker struggled mightily in Game Three after solid Game One and Two performances.
Should the Spurs be worried about Parker and Ginobili struggling? Is this a trend?
RUOCCO - I think it is an issue. Parker is a larger problem - look at how drastic the difference was between Games One and Two, where Parker played well, and Game Three, where he wasn’t as good. Ginobili still does savvy things with that second unit, and with Pau Gasol now anchoring that group you can get away with Manu being in a lesser role and not producing as much.
Parker, meanwhile, is depended upon to create for others as well as himself, like Dewayne Dedmon on offense. If Parker has issues, it impacts the team more than it does with Ginobili playing poorly in particular. For two games Parker did well, but he didn’t in Game Three. There’s no verdict on this one way or another yet, but they need more of Game One and Two Parker than they got in Game Three if they hope to make a deep playoff run.
MULLINAX - Parker looked washed heading into this series, and then he had that resurgence in the first two games of the playoffs and turned it on. I thought Mike Conley, clearly the better player at this stage, was nevertheless outplayed by Parker, especially in Game One. Kawhi is going to continue to get his, but Parker is an x-factor at this point for the Spurs and playing championship basketball.
The Grizzlies as a team depend on their own x-factor heading in to Game Four - the crowd. Rowdy Memphians likely will fill FedExForum once again after a day out on Beale Street, so the energy will be there for the Grizzlies to feed off of as they try to even the series. How can the Grizzlies build upon their Game Three performance in Game Four - you know Gregg Popovich is coming with a counter-punch.
RUOCCO- They have to continue to move the ball. They did a better job in Game Three by not being stagnant and creating open looks - Mike Conley said after Game Three that players would fall in love with mismatches after Spurs switches and they would force shots. Z-Bo jab steps for 10-12 seconds and contested jumpers in Games One and Two became damage being done in and around the paint in Game Three. He was insistent on bullying whoever was guarding him and he did a better job at that than he had before.
They kept the ball moving, they got better looks closer to the rim, and guys weren’t afraid to shoot - whether it be James Ennis, or Wayne Selden, or Marc Gasol…it was a play off of the aggressiveness of Randolph and Conley collapsing the defense with dives and drives at the rim. If they continue to share the basketball, those three players (Gasol/Conley/Randolph) are really, really, really good. If they can defend, they have a chance.
MULLINAX - Being a blogger is unique. You’re a fan, but then you want to be fair and impartial for the site you write/work for and the folks who follow you for legitimate opinions. My head tells me the Grizzlies will still lose in five games, but after Thursday’s performance I want to believe this can be a series. Games like that give you hope.
RUOCCO - It should give you hope. If Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Zach Randolph are firing on all cylinders, there’s no reason the Grizzlies cannot compete in this series. Should the Spurs be favored in the series? Of course - they have the best player and the better team. But Memphis has good talent, a good home court advantage, and the ability to muddy up and muck up the game. Having that, plus multiple guys who can get a bucket, you always have a chance this time of year. The Grizzlies are a tough out. They just needed something to swing the momentum.
Fizdale did that for them - now it’s up to the players to see how far it can take them. Who knows, maybe it does result in a win.
Thanks so much to Ryan for joining me for Grizzly Thoughts and thanks to Gianina Thompson of ESPN for setting up the interview. Game Four of the 2017 NBA Playoffs first round series between the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs airs tonight at 7:00 PM CT nationally on ESPN.