Grit is Good
The Memphis sports landscape continues to glow, particularly on the hardwood.
illustration by Carl Fox | Memphis Urban Sketchers
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After dropping their opening game of the 2012-13 season to the same Los Angeles Clippers that eliminated them in the 2012 playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies won 14 of their next 16 games for the best start in franchise history. During the streak, the Griz handled the NBA champion Miami Heat and reigning Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder, establishing a place among league contenders unseen since the team moved to Memphis in 2001.
Playing their first season under a new ownership group led by tech tycoon Robert Pera, the Grizzlies climbed near the top of the Western Conference behind five starters playing their third season together. That core was broken up, though, on January 31st with the trade of the team’s top scorer (and franchise leader in games played), Rudy Gay. Under the weight of big contracts for three other players (Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley), the Grizzlies had to shed salary and Gay’s contract landed in Toronto, with veteran forward Tayshaun Prince finding himself in Memphis after the three-team deal with Detroit was finalized. (The Raptors also sent reserve forward Ed Davis to Memphis.)
The Grizzlies lost three of their first four games after the big trade (the first before Prince could join the team), but then won eight straight games and 14 of 15, the lone defeat coming at Miami on March 1st. Randolph made his second All-Star team (averaging 15.4 points and 11.2 rebounds while accumulating 45 double-doubles, good for fourth in the NBA). Conley led the league in total steals (174) and center Marc Gasol defied convention by winning the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award despite not ranking among the NBA’s top 10 in rebounds, blocks, or steals. (Looking at more modern metrics, Gasol finished second only to Indiana’s Paul George in defensive win shares. His trophy was well earned.)
Having gone 29-15 before the Gay trade, the Grizzlies went 27-11 after the deal, establishing a new franchise record for wins while going 32-9 at FedExForum. Alas, those 56 wins were only good enough for the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs and drew, yes, the Los Angeles Clippers as the Grizzlies’ first-round opponent.
The Griz dropped the first two games in L.A., then reeled off four straight wins — each by at least 10 points — to dismiss All-NBA point guard Chris Paul and friends. In the second round for just the second time in franchise history, the Grizzlies dropped the opener at Oklahoma City then again won four straight games over another All-NBA talent (Kevin Durant). Randolph (28 points, 11 rebounds) and Conley (13 points, 11 assists) were key in the Game 5 clincher, a victory that took Memphis fans a place they’d never been before: the Western Conference finals.
The Grizzlies’ series with San Antonio was their third straight playoff rematch of the coach Lionel Hollins era, Memphis having upset the top-seeded Spurs in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs. Alas, supporting players like Matt Bonner, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green (the trio combined for 11 three-pointers in the Spurs’ blowout Game 1 victory) proved too much for the Griz, especially with stalwart (and yes, All-NBA) center Tim Duncan playing his best playoff basketball in years. The Grizzlies ended Game 2 on a 15-2 run to force overtime, only to fall victim to a Spurs defense that held Memphis to four points in the extra period. Fans at FedExForum were treated to another overtime affair in Game 3 . . . and another San Antonio win. The Spurs finished off the four-game sweep on the latest date (Memorial Day, May 27th) NBA basketball has ever been played in Memphis.
On June 10th, Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien announced that Hollins would not be offered a new contract for the 2013-14 season and beyond. Hollins departs Memphis with the most wins (196) in franchise history. Succeeding Hollins will be Dave Joerger, an assistant for six seasons on the Grizzlies’ bench.