It’s hard to believe that three weeks ago, the Grizzlies were down 2-0 in the first round. It looked like the best season in franchise history might end up being a grave disappointment. When I watched Game 2, I was the only one in my house still awake. Now, this has happened to me dozens of times over the years during crucial sporting events, and normally, I’ve been able to keep my mouth shut. This time, however, I couldn’t abide. When Chris Paul’s shot went through, I let out a blood-curdling scream that woke up the entire house. They thought a burglar was coming in. I managed to smooth the situation over, but I was no happier the next morning. I thought for sure the Grizzlies were dead in the water.
After mulling it over for awhile, I rationalized that the Grizzlies still had at least a chance. They hadn’t played a home game yet, and when the proceedings moved to the Grindhouse, they might be able to change the tone of the series. I came to the odd conclusion that the Grizzlies would either get swept or win the next four games, and take the series in 6. We all know what happened next.
When the Grizzlies finished off the Clippers, it felt important because it meant the Grizzlies weren’t “cute” anymore. To understand what I mean, consider the Denver Nuggets. A great team, always a scary matchup, but unable to do anything in the playoffs. The Nuggets are the definition of a Cute team. Everyone likes them, everyone wants them to be a contender, but they’ve done nothing to illustrate that they actually are one. Now, the Grizzlies had already reached the second round in 2011, but had they fallen to the Clippers in two consecutive years, the idea would have been thrown around that the Grizzlies were mere pretenders, that their win over the Spurs in 2011 was a mere fluke because they were able to catch them off guard, and because Ginobili wasn’t fully healthy. Winning four in a row and taking down the rival Clips squashed this notion, and proved that the Grizzlies are nothing to mess with.
Now, they’re one game away from the Conference Finals, up 3-1 on the team they came so close to beating three years ago. A win tonight – or Friday or Sunday – would undeniably be the biggest win in franchise history, and raise the Grizzlies’ respect level even more. Reaching the conference finals would prove that the Grizzlies are one of the very best teams in the league, that they can’t be taken even remotely lightly. Yes, the question of what they would have done if Westbrook had been healthy will come up quite a lot, but it’s not the Grizzlies fault that Westbrook got hurt, and so far, the Grizzlies have done a commendable job of taking advantage of the situation in front of them. they could have become relaxed with the Thunder’s electric point guard in the lineup, but in stead they’ve played some of their toughest defense ever (save for the first half of Game 4, when they were pretty out of it), and have forced Kevin Durant to just about everything. The result is an exhausted superstar who is suddenly realizing his limitations.
Many have pointed out how close all the games in this series have been, using it as a justification for why the Grizzlies would be getting crushed if Westbrook were around. If anything, though, I think the Grizzlies’ ability to succeed in tight games proves their status as legitimate contenders. The biggest knock against them going into these playoffs was the lack of a true superstar. It’s even been discussed on this site. The question of “who’s gonna take the last shot” permeated Grizzlies discussion for months, especially after the Rudy Gay trade, and created doubt about their ability to hang with the big boys. But in a series where the Thunder undeniably have the best player in Kevin Durant, the Grizzlies have risen to the occasion three out four times, forcing Durant to take bad shots, and shutting him down at the end of games. After Game 1, Durant looked unstoppable, like he might be able to win the series by himself. But when it’s mattered, the Grizzlies have been able to neutralize him. Maybe the Thunder would be doing better with Westbrook around, but the Grizzlies have demonstrated that they can not only overcome their lack of a superstar, they can win tight games even when they don’t have the best player on the court. This goes a long way in establishing them as one of the toughest teams in the league.
The Grizzlies may not win tonight – the Thunder are on their home court, desperate to keep things going, and they certainly won’t make it easy, but there’s a very good chance they’ll win one of the next three games, and earn their first spot int he Conference Finals. To many Grizzlies fans and bloggers, this will prove that we were right along, that we weren’t “homers” for thinking our team had a legitimate shot. The Grizzlies are right on the edge of proving themselves to be a truly great team. To some it will be a shock, but many of us knew they were capable of this all along.