Game 6 of the opening round of the NBA Playoffs between the Grizzlies and the Spurs began like this: 1:49 seconds into the pivotal win or go home game (felt like) the unthinkable happens: Mike Conley is called for his second personal foul of the game. Coach Hollins looks worried. Memphis fans look worried. Heck even Rick Trotter, the Grizzlies PA announcer, has a slight hitch in his voice. Hollins signals down the bench. Youre in, he says.
The kid nods, simultaneously surveying the court: Duncan: hes in. Ginobili, too. Tony Parker: sure. Theyre there. All of them. They size him up, hey rook, their eyes say, like a pack of hungry wolves at fresh meat, which is not so far from the truth. You see, the truth is this: they know what he knows; the offense, every bit of it, fate of the city, teammates, pretty much everything for the next 12 minutes or so, will be in his hands alone. One misstep and theyll pounce. The kid understands. Its a challenge.
His name is Greivis Vasquez. A rookie. Product of the Maryland Terps, who as a senior won ACC player of the year. An accolade he carries with him much like his scouting report. That, at some point, so says the scouting report, Mr. Vasquez will have an emotional outburst. Just how hes wired, it insists. Often his game has the up and down charge of a Freddy Fender ballad, pitched ever so tight, and there are times when he looks almost as if he is creating drama for the simple pleasure that his body needs to feel that elated hush of the moment when the shot swishes through the net or when it bounces heartbreakingly off. Its in these moments when he remembers this is what he was born for, to give the crowd pleasure or pain. Greivis is a player who always feels as though the rim is within his grasp, but instinctively realizes that it should be out of his grasp more than it actually is, youll often see him indeed think through a shot attempt as if he were a kid wondering if it is okay to grab the last piece of candy. Its always tantalizingly there, egging him on as it warns/condemns. Sometimes he gives in to it. Like the 3 pointers he took last night in the Spurs game (he had already made a 9 footer, an 11 footer, two free throws, the grizzlies are up 12-2, when he hoisted up a 25 footer) and he looks over to the bench, he doesnt want to look. Coach Hollins scowls. I had to remind him that he isnt the star. Said Hollins. In college, he was. That sort of emotion was not only condoned, but welcomed. But college this isnt. The NBA, the buzzword is control. As in, control your emotions, Greivis. Look for the open man, Greivis. Hold it for the last shot, Greivis. Go, Go, Go! Stop and start, at the drop of a dime. Watch him long enough and youll realize that certain parts of his game are biologically wired into him. That he cant control it: his instinct is to score, to probe, to see the basket like a vast ocean he can drop the ball into.
So you might imagine that when Conley gotnot only onebut two early fouls what might have been going through the young kids mind, an untested rookie, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. His task: as he took himself to the scorers table, hold down the fort. There were three reasons to doubt. Parker, Ginobili and Duncan, the veteran spurs who make season veterans shrink like a shrinking violet, yet not less than a minute into his stint on the court the kid does something: first he bravely pulls down a rebound, then rushes the ball up the court, when he gets to the top of the key, he hesitates, studyimg the contour of the defense, suddenly he drives straight for Tony Parker, floating a feathery runner right over top of him in the lane. The crowd roars. His step: now a little spryer than it was, was the response that the Grizzlies desperately needed, and the Spurs certainly did not expect. And all at once we knew that we were going to be alright. Much like the rest of these grizzlies, he was just too green to know that the game isnt supposed to be that easy, and when he had given the point guard duties back to Mike Conley he had amassed 8 points, a board and 0 turnovers, and most important of all, had killed nearly 12 minutes of playoff basketball. Not bad.