Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bouncing Into Graceland.

Today, the Mississippi delta is, indeed, shining like a National guitar. When the final buzzer sounded last night, the crowd at FedEx Forum erupted, showering wave upon wave of love upon their heretofore beleaguered Memphis Grizzlies.

Years of mediocre play, Pau Gasol trade jokes, and ignoble playoff humiliations were washed away like so much delta mud last night by the inexorable flow of Tony Allen's unstoppable motor, Shane Battier's veteran grit, Marc Gasol's paint-banging acumen, and, of course, Zach Randolph. The man called Z-Bo, who had been bounced around the league like a pinball before landing in Memphis in 2009, has found himself a home. You could see it on his face after the game; a huge, punch-drunk grin soaking up the adoration of a fan base who couldn't care less about his past issues. He's here now, and he's one of their own. Last night, he had every reason to be smiling, and to believe that a large quotient of those cheers were reserved for him alone. Despite the pressure of the moment, he was absolutely relentless, tallying 11 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal, and a monstrous 31 points.

After opening an early 14-point lead, Memphis held serve fro most of the game. Every time San Antonio looked to be generating momentum, the Griz found somebody to stifle it. The struggling Greivis Vasquez kicked in 11 points off the bench, and Darrel Arthur had one huge block and a thunderous alley-oop jam that sent the place into near-hysterics. But the veteran Spurs weren't going gentle in to the humid Memphis night. Their championship-laden core trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan combined for 51 points and nine assists, and they got additional help from Antonio McDyess (10) and their young reserves, who gave them 30 points off the bench. Despite getting killed 43-32 on the glass, The Spurs just kept hanging around, and Ginobili's past-half-court heave at the third quarter buzzer looked like one more improbable shot by the Argentinian that might spark
one more equally-improbable comeback.

99% of the fourth quarter belonged to Z-Bo, who put up 17 points in the final frame. Shifting into fifth gear, he unleashed a hailstorm of floaters, put-backs, jumpers, and hooks in the paint that left San Antonio dizzy. Even when the Spurs managed to claw their way to an 80-79 lead midway through the period, they looked beaten. Like a boxer who refuses to stop the fight, they were going to reel their way to the end, a proud and dignified team not about to concede the inevitable. (I'm not going to burn space on a eulogy for the San Antonio dynasty here, as plenty of people are already performing the media's version of last rites. Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich don't want to talk about those kinds of implications yet, and we ought to respect their wishes, no matter what our eyes are telling us.)

As I said: the 4th was 99% Randolph's. The other 1%: Tony Allen exemplifying the kind of attitude and grit we love to see in the playoffs. Allen caught an errant outlet pass at half-court, and the Spurs' Matt Bonner, rushing over to defend, knocked him into the scorer's table. As teammates and sideline personnel came over to help him up, Allen waved everybody off, his gestures and his face saying plainly: "I don't need help. We don't need help. I'm getting up, and we're going to put these guys away." It was a great moment, the perfect encapsulation of Memphis' blue-collar mentality and spirit. In the end, that spirit glared brightly out from the scoreboard: a 99-91 victory and a ticket to round two.

It was a historic first round for Memphis. The team chalked up its first playoff victory, its first postseason series victory, and in the process became just the second 8th-seeded squad to advance since the first round went to a best-of-seven format. The Grizzlies now face the unenviable task of battling the Oklahoma City Thunder in round two, whose youthful legs present a completely different challenge. Given the tenor of these playoffs thus far, we can likely expect another epic series. Right now, the Griz are probably all business and preparation. Their minds are already on and in OKC, but after last night, I'd bet their feet are still ten feet off of Beale.

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