Grizzlies eliminate top-seeded Spurs
Everywhere on Friday night, anyone who ever played for the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies had to have a lump in his throat.
Maybe Greg Anthony, one of the original Grizzlies in 1995-96. Surely, he remembers the franchise's fourth game, when the Grizz lost by 49 points to San Antonio in the Alamodome.
It's still the worst loss in franchise history.
Maybe Tony Massenburg, one of the few guys who left the Grizzlies and then wanted to come back as a free agent.
His four years with the Grizzlies included parts of a 21-game losing streak against the Spurs.
Surely, he and lot of other former Grizzlies (roll call: Check in, Bryant "Big Country" Reeves) were raising a toast Friday when the eighth-seeded Grizzlies eliminated the top-seeded Spurs in a Western Conference first-round playoff series with a 99-91 victory in FedExForum.
Ironically, it was a guy on whom most of the NBA had given up, Grizz forward Zach Randolph, who put his team on his back and carried it the final steps to the top of the mountain.
He scored a game-high and personal playoff-best 31 points, including 17 in the final quarter on 6 of 8 field-goal shooting. Randolph produced 13 points in the game's last 4:30.
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"I wanted to touch the ball every time I came down court," Randolph said. "I told Mike (Conley), 'Give me the ball.' I made it an issue to take over the game."
In this series and especially in this game, the nation got to see Randolph's maturity, his redemption, for getting a reputation earlier in his career as a malcontent.
Even at the start of this series, an Internet columnist called Randolph a punk, which infuriated Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins.
"How can someone write that?" Hollins said. "How can someone not come here, talk to Zach and others and see the positive impact he's had on us and this community?"
Winning the first round of the playoffs is old hat to the Spurs, Lakers, Mavericks and the rest of the traditional powerhouse NBA teams in bigger markets with better exposure and more respect from the national media.
But for the city of Memphis, which had never had a major league pro franchise (discounting the USFL, WFL and ABA teams that played here) until the Grizzlies arrived 10 years ago, advancing to the Western semifinals starting Sunday at Oklahoma City means so much to the average citizen.
Even Randolph recognizes that. Never before has he felt so loved by a city.
"It has never been like this anywhere else," he said after hearing chants of "MVP!" in the closing moments as he was putting the finishing touches on the Spurs.
"This city has embraced me. The people here have been great.
"I'm involved in the community. I'm involved with the kids here. I think God has blessed me, and He has made this work for me. I think this is God's plan for me to be here. I'm feel like I'm from Memphis, and this is great for our city.
"We don't get on TV very much, we have just a couple of national games, but we have a good team, we play well and these young guys love to play and love to learn."
For anyone out there who thought the performance of Randolph and the Grizzlies was blind luck, veteran Spurs such as Manu Ginobili and Antonio McDyess, who did everything humanly possible to slow down Randolph, said the best team won.
"The reality is if you watched the last 15 games of the season, I'm not saying (the Grizzlies) were better than us, but it was pretty darned close," Ginobili said. "They were a team, rising, getting better, and we couldn't sustain the type of basketball we played in January and February.
"We were kind of winding down a bit. With the playoffs, the thing is to get there at the best possible moment."
McDyess' take was even stronger.
"After you see what they did to us, they looked like the No. 1 seed and we looked like the No. 8 seed," he said.
Which is why, if you looked at this series closely, it wasn't a fluke. It wasn't even an upset.
It's just another step — granted, a huge one — in the franchise's growth process that started when Hollins was hired as head coach on Jan. 25, 2009.
"When I took over, I told the players that we're building not just to go out and beat teams on the level of us," Hollins said. "We want to get to the upper echelon. The way you do it is you have pride, working to make sure you try to get better every practice and every game. Players have bought into that.
"First off, their work ethic has been tremendous from when I first took over. When I first took over, it was like a country club as far as their effort to work. And then, being more consistent with their effort became the next thing. And then, taking it to another level, when you've never won or won on lower levels where it's not as difficult, winning is easier. But on this level, winning is hard. It takes a lot more than you think you have to give and a lot more than you want to give at times.
"That's where we are right now."