The pain flashed in the redness of Marc Gasol’s eyes. The hurt was evident in the pauses and head shaking of Zach Randolph.
And the reality was clear in the few words on the dry erase board in the Grizzlies’ locker room: “Exit Physicals 1 p.m.”
A playoff series and a season were over. Eventually, this will be remembered as a season in which the Grizzlies overcame instead of for the postseason in which they were overcome. But for now, fresh off an 82-72 loss on Sunday, May 13, to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first playoff Game 7 held at FedExForum, all the “Believe Memphis” T-shirts in the world can’t cover the fact the Grizzlies let an opportunity slip away.
They had worked hard to earn a No. 4 seed and gain home-court advantage in the first round. They had survived multiple injuries, the most serious being the knee injury that caused Randolph to miss more than half of the lockout-shortened season. In this series they had fought, rallying from a 3-1 deficit so they could play Game 7 on their home floor – after blowing a 24-point fourth-quarter lead here in Game 1.
The Grizzlies showed time and again they could rebound from failure. But ultimately they did not do as well with success as they followed their gut-it-out victory in Los Angeles in Game 6 with a horrific performance in Game 7.
Gasol and Rudy Gay each scored 19 points and Randolph pulled down 12 rebounds, but these were footnotes in a game which saw the Grizzlies score only six fast break points, miss all 13 shots taken from 3-point range, miss another nine free throws, and again fail to compete with poise and passion in the fourth quarter.
Asked which loss would be harder to get past in the offseason – Game 1 or Game 7 – Randolph stopped and tried to weigh the series’ bookend disasters. Finally, he said, “Man, that’s a good question. Game 1 killed us. I don’t know if it did something to our confidence or our mentality or what. We’ve just got to learn how to play 48 minutes.”
Said Gay: “This series would have been totally different if we would have won that (first) game.”
It’s a sentiment that gains traction with fans but, at least publicly, not with coach Lionel Hollins. Locked into a coach’s quarter-by-quarter mentality, Hollins faulted the Grizzlies for the way they started Game 7 as they scored just 13 points in the first quarter and shot 27 percent (the Clippers were about as bad, shooting 28 percent and scoring 16 points).
“Even if we win Game 1, we may have been back here playing (Game 7),” Hollins said. “We just came out with seventh game pressure and jitters. You just gotta let it rip and we didn’t let it rip.”
Although the Grizzlies carried a 56-55 lead into the fourth quarter, the game sitting there for the taking, they promptly gave up an 11-2 run to start the quarter and never drew closer than six points again. They were down six with 1:37 left in the game when O.J. Mayo picked Chris Paul’s pocket in the backcourt. But Mayo then missed near the rim.
“We make that layup and we’re down four and we have a chance,” Hollins said.
It was all part of a bad, potentially last, Memphis game for restricted free agent Mayo (1-for-11 and four points). Point guard Mike Conley, who did not feel well before Game 7, also played poorly. Though he had a strong series, he turned in a weak Game 7 and hit just 2-of-13 shots and scored seven points.
“You’re only as good as your last game, which pretty much sucked,” Mayo said in an honest self-evaluation.
Clippers point guard Chris Paul, though somewhat limited by a hip flexor injury, just missed a double-double: 19 points and nine rebounds. But it was the Clippers’ bench that brought the victory home, outscoring the Grizzlies’ bench 41-11 and scoring of 25 of the team’s 27 fourth-quarter points. Kenyon Martin finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds. All of that more than covered an off game from Blake Griffin, who was bothered by a sore knee.
Said Martin: “I’m not afraid of the moment.”
If the Grizzlies were not afraid, they were still not willing to match the intensity and focus coming from the other side – at least not collectively and consistently.
“I don’t think they wanted it more than us; we wanted it real bad,” Gasol said. “Everybody left it all out there.”
Hollins acknowledged the pain of the moment, saying, “The guys are hurting, I’m hurting, but hopefully the sun will come up tomorrow. This is a very satisfying year with a bitter end.” And then he added a truth that will require more time to be of any consolation: “Every team but one will have a bitter end.”