If you missed part one, check it out here.
The Memphis Grizzlies were fortunate to have a real identity. A mentality to hang their hats on. To the credit of the new-look Grizzlies, they understand the importance of establishing a culture and building upon it. That takes time, and successes and failures to grow and learn from. Those opportunities will come, but with the NBA season currently suspended with no end in immediate sight, looking back on arguably the most real era in NBA history in terms of raw emotion and a team embodying a city is an exercise well worth our time.
In part one, three teams that lost in the first round of their playoff runs were listed. There is one more team that also lost in the first round of the playoffs...yet they make it to part two, on top of all those that came before and left the postseason too soon.
Why? Because they’re different...and it was the end.
Number Four: The 2016-2017 Memphis Grizzlies
FINAL RECORD: 43-39, #7 seed in the 2017 Western Conference Playoffs, 107.7 offensive rating, 107.1 defensive rating
FINISH: Eliminated in the 1st round in six games by the San Antonio Spurs
The 2013-2014 and 2011-2012 versions of the Memphis Grizzlies had better overall regular season records. The 2011-2012 Grizzlies had home court advantage in their first round series. Both squads played in game sevens, whereas the 2017 playoffs ended for Memphis in six. There are various ways you can argue that either of those teams from Part One should be in this spot instead of the 2016-2017 installment.
But when the end of something so special comes, you grade that season on a curve. While Mike Conley and company did their damndest, this was indeed the final breath of Grit and Grind.
It’s fitting, then, that it ended against the team that helped start it in the San Antonio Spurs. Future NBA Champion Kawhi Leonard was at the peak of his San Antonio Spurs powers, dominating play on both ends of the floor. 34 year old Tony Parker turned back the clock at times and carried the Spurs in his traditional “Grizz killer” fashion, and between those two and LaMarcus Aldridge the Grizzlies simply could not respond.
But they competed. In large part because Mike Conley played the best basketball of his life. At times, Conley was winning toe to toe battles in terms of scoring and overall play against the superior Leonard.
It’s like he knew something...and refused to let the era end with a whimper.
That overtime victory against the Spurs in Game Four - what wound up being the final win for the Core Four in Memphis - was a classic. The back and forth nature and finish make it one of the greatest Grizzlies games ever.
The heroics of Conley and Marc Gasol (who ironically had the best offensive season of his career to that point in 2016-2017 under Mr. “Take That for Data” David Fizdale) are part of what made people think that the good times could continue to roll once Tony Allen and Zach Randolph were gone. TA was a limited offensive player in his prime, and he was past that at this stage and missed another playoff series due to injury. Zach Randolph was also aging out of the Grizzlies being “his team” - he struggled too much on defense and was not able to dominate the glass and paint in the same way he once did. It was Mike and Marc’s team now - and they appeared up to the task beyond Zach and Tony being in Memphis.
Boy, were we wrong.
Tony Allen was missed in this series. Having him on Kawhi Leonard or another Spurs wing at times instead of Vince Carter or James Ennis may have helped in certain spots. And the fact that Chandler Parsons was a massive disappointment due to health issues didn’t help. But these final Grit and Grind Grizzlies, while displaying superstar potential for the first time since arguably “Super Z-Bo” in 2011 with Conley’s performance, were very much the same as the rest. Fatally flawed, but still beloved for what they had become - a group willing to fight to the finish.
Both Allen and Randolph were free agents after the season. TA was not a part of the future Grizzlies coach at the time David Fizdale envisioned (again, ironically). Z-Bo (correctly) left Memphis for a two-year, $24 million contract in Sacramento that Zach would’ve been crazy to pass on and Memphis would’ve been crazy to match. Grit and Grind, in hindsight, was dead. But the attempt to continue it , without the two players who helped create and define the era, was a mistake.
Marc and Mike by the end were the superior players. But Zach and Tony were the heart and soul. Their departure ended it all. But it didn’t go without a final swing, and the special Game Four overtime victory, combined with “Super Conley” and the end of an era, pushes this group above the 2013-2014 and 2011-2012 Grizzlies for me.
NUMBER THREE: The 2010-2011 Memphis Grizzlies
FINAL RECORD: 46-36, #8 seed in the 2011 Western Conference Playoffs. 107.6 offensive rating, 105.1 defensive rating
FINISH: Eliminated in the semifinals by the Oklahoma City Thunder
From the end, to the beginning.
All heart. Grit. Grind.
Allen brought a championship tenacity with him to Memphis from the Boston Celtics. That, alongside the remarkably unique skill and mentality of Zach Randolph, helped to cultivate one of the most remarkable runs in NBA history. It didn’t result in a championship - but it did lead to amazing moments that the city and their fans will never forget.
The 2009-2010 Grizzlies - not quite Grit and Grind yet, but well on their way - set the stage for this now legendary season. It took over a year of building and establishing what it meant to be a Memphis Grizzly (sound familiar?), and the fruits of that labor were on display both in victory over the Spurs and in defeat to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The regular season was a race to the finish, with Memphis needing big win after big win just to stay in the postseason push. That sense of urgency likely helped the Grizzlies on their way to a magical spring.
Zach Randolph was a menace. He almost single handedly ended Antonio McDyess’ career. He was the best player in a series that included Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and prime Tony Parker - one certain (congrats Timmy) and two likely future Hall of Famers. He also, arguably, was the second best player in the Thunder series, which of course involved Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka. “Super Z-Bo” was a force of nature that could not be stopped - he could only be contained. How many times can that be said about any individual Memphis Grizzly historically?
Rarely. Superstars don’t set up shop in Memphis. But for this run, one did. And he shined very brightly.
Marc Gasol was an underrated force in these playoffs. Rudy Gay - who missed the playoff run (and perhaps opened the way for a Super Z-Bo stretch due to their need to have the ball in their hands consistently) was the second leading scorer on the squad in the regular season. Perhaps more than almost any other Grizzlies Grit and Grind team, though, the squad depended on major contributions from role players to make this magical run happen this particular season. Mike Conley’s huge made three, followed by the one made by Greivis Vasquez. The block and dunk sequence that was undoubtedly the peak of Darrell Arthur’s injury-riddled NBA career. Clutch defense from Shane Battier in his second stint in Memphis, pump fakes galore from Sam Young, the reserve scoring prowess of OJ Mayo...
It took a village. Not just on the floor, but off of it.
This postseason will also be remembered in Memphis because of the terrible floods that hurt the city during this time. The community needed something to serve as both a distraction and a unifying force, and the Grizzlies filled that role and then some. The final scene of the above video - the crowds chanting Z-Bo on their way out of FedExForum - rings out across the history of this franchise. The cheers echo in the minds of those that experienced it in person. And the actions of Zach and his teammates, and the city that fell in love with them, have impacted lives in ways no one will ever be able to measure.
They left quite a mark on a young man in Richmond, Virginia. Terrified to be leaving his home state for the first time to live with a girl he’d been dating for eight months, he looked for anything to connect himself to the city he’d be moving to that summer. He followed those Grizzlies in the spring of 2011 and fell head over heels from afar. The energy, the aggression, the genuine passion, the grit displayed by not just the players but the whole damn city.
It led to him buying season tickets with a friend once he settled in Memphis. Led to him searching for a way to talk Memphis Grizzlies basketball more, and finding an SB Nation blog and becoming a commenter. Then being a writer, then a podcaster. Then, even after leaving the city that became his second home sticking around to become Site Manager. It led to him writing about that 2017 team and raging against the dying light that was becoming more and more clear.
It, even as we speak, has him (ok, me) sitting by an arrangement on a wall in his home he shares with his wife (that Memphis girlfriend) and his two daughters (one of which owns a Mike Conley jersey) of four drawings that in part symbolize his relationship with his wife. A monument that stands in Richmond, where they met, next to a Virginia cardinal. And a map of downtown Memphis, next to a picture of a grizzly bear.
Nine years after the beginning of Grit and Grind, and three years after its end, my life continues to be better for having had the Memphis Grizzlies in it. I’ll never be able to repay them for all the wonderful things they’ve helped make possible for me. All I can do is pay it forward, and pay respect to what was. How it started, and how it ended.
And how all that came in the space between continues to make all the difference.
Part three is coming soon. Stats provided by basketball-reference.com