His team had just overcome a 17-point first-half deficit and beaten Oklahoma City in overtime to win Game 4 and take a commanding 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series. So someone asked Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins if he was impressed.
“I’m very impressed. We scratch. We claw. They say grit and grind. (But) I don’t know what the heck that means,” Hollins said, flashing his trademark smile of annoyance. “We compete. We were not the most talented team in the playoffs when we started out. We’re not the most talented team left in the playoffs, but we go and compete.”
Zach Randolph scored 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the 88-84 win over Oklahoma City, helping lead the Grizzlies to the conference finals, where they will face either the San Antonio Spurs or Golden State Warriors. (AP/Sue Ogrocki)
Do they ever. The Grizzlies closed the door on this series with an 88-84 win in Game 5 Wednesday night at Oklahoma City. They competed and, yes, they scratched and clawed. They survived the inevitable late Thunder run and a crowd trying to carry its superstar (Kevin Durant) as he tried to carry his team.
Durant was 5-for-20 on the night when he shook Tony Allen just long enough to fire an open jumper. But it was too strong and there was Allen racing in for the rebound and then getting fouled and sinking two free throws to seal the victory and send the Grizzlies to their first-ever conference finals.
“All heart, grit and grind,” point guard Mike Conley said in a courtside interview after the game when asked how the Grizzlies went from the team that lost in seven games to OKC two years ago to a team now one round away from the NBA Finals.
It’s a compelling storyline. Yet the modern NBA would not, if given the choice, invent a team like the Grizzlies in its marketing laboratory. Oh, sure, maybe if the team was based in New York or L.A. or even Chicago, they could get behind the all-for-one and one-for-all mentality from the season’s start and consider it a worthy narrative. But not when it originates in the league’s second-smallest TV market.
Plus, the Grizzlies’ success requires explanation. In a 140-character Twitter world, no one has time for explanation. Especially not if it involves a team relying on its “bigs” and playing hard in the anonymity of “flyover” country. Better to see a superstar, ideally from the coast, lifting his team. You don’t have to expend energy learning the names of the role players or even guys in the starting lineup not named LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. Which perhaps explains why even as TNT’s Charles Barkley praises Tony Allen, he repeatedly calls him “Tony Smith.”
But there does come a point when the small-market wonder cannot be ignored. And that point has come for the Grizzlies. Conley is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, albeit the regional edition, and the SI story on the postseason’s “biggest sleeper” carries a fitting headline: “True Grit.”
The Memphis Grizzlies held Oklahoma City star forward Kevin Durant to 21 points on 5-of-21 shooting and eliminated the Thunder in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs with an 88-84 victory. (AP/Sue Ogrocki)
The league’s coaches recently voted Allen All-Defensive first-team and Conley and center Marc Gasol second-team; media earlier selected Gasol the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. For decades, we took as gospel the line that “defense wins championships.” But in recent years, and across all major pro sports, we have worshipped at the altar of offense.
The Grizzlies’ defense, which for most of the year was the league’s stingiest, is rooted in a collective commitment and in those moments when pure effort makes up for everything else. Allen, aka The Grindfather, might be the only one who calls himself a “thirsty dog,” but it describes them all at one time or another.
So no, the Grizzlies are not the most talented team in these playoffs. And if they advance to the NBA Finals, where in all probability they would face the Miami Heat, they would be the second-most talented team in a season that only has two teams left.
But that’s OK. Hollins, in describing Zach Randolph’s 28-point and 14-rebound performance in Game 5, said Z-Bo “came out snorting and grunting from the beginning.”
Perfect. Snort and grunt, grit and grind, scratch and claw … say it however you want to say it. It all adds up to the same thing: You kick the NBA’s “biggest sleeper” at your own risk.