Monday, December 14, 2009

A Game for Basketball Fans

Posted By on Mon, Dec 14, 2009 at 11:11 PM

I'm going to hold off on a traditional post-game report until tomorrow, because my first reaction to tonight's game, a 110-105 loss to a now 20-4 Boston Celtics team, is to soak up how much I enjoyed it and to try to put it in a little perspective relative to the development of this team.

I care a lot about the success of the Grizzlies on and off the court, but I come at the team from the perspective of an NBA fan first and foremost, and it's that perspective from which I loved this game. Tonight, a veteran title contender with the league's best record, a 10-game winning streak, and a lineup built around three future hall-of-famers came into a road game with a day's rest to face a suddenly surging but very young team on the second night of a back-to-back.

The lead never exceeded five points in either direction. The young team on the back-to-back was clearly fatigued in the second half, but mounted several mini-comebacks when it seemed like they were ready to fold, including a surprising six-point run just past the three-minute mark to pull within two points and force the veteran contenders to call a timeout. The rest of the way — fewer than 90 seconds to play — it took all three future hall-of-famers making clutch shots for the veteran team to take this game: A high-arcing 22-footer from Kevin Garnett. A fierce driving finish from Paul Pierce. And then the back-breaker: Down only two points with under 20 second the play, the Grizzlies broke up a Celtics play, forcing a long, off-balance three-pointer at the end of the shot clock. The shooter? Walter Ray Allen. Game over.

A tweet from an NBA fan watching from outside the city of Memphis tonight: "You get the sense that the Celtics actually respected this team. Which is kind of awesome."

There was a lot of that tonight. I follow many out-of-town NBA fans — bloggers, writers, etc. — on Twitter, and I noticed tonight that an awful lot of them seemed to be watching Grizzlies-Celtics.

If the city of Memphis is still catching up to a team that is increasingly winning fans among NBA junkies nationwide, that's to be expected. The Grizzlies spent several years digging this hole and aren't about to climb their way out in a few weeks. But that process has begun. It will start with national press filtering in, increased TV viewership, more people reading local coverage of the team, more tweets, more water-cooler talk, more talk-radio calls. Ticket sales will be the final piece. But I think that will come, even if not until next season. At least I hope so. Tonight: 14,193 announced. A shabby crowd for a game against the high-profile Celtics, even for a Monday night.

But while attendance will lag behind performance, that means an awful lot of former, potential, and future Grizzlies fans are missing out. My favorite Grizzlies season is everyone's favorite Grizzlies season. The 50-Win Year. The Hubie Year. But my second favorite Grizzlies season is the year before that, a 28-win campaign in which fans first saw the signs of a young, promising team coming together. This year has become that year, except with more than 28 wins at the end of season and more upside beyond it.

Most fans will come around later, when this team has clearly become a real playoff contender. Call us when you're ready to win something. The Grizzlies have probably earned that reticence.

But the fun of watching a good team won't be quite as sweet for them as for the fans that watched a bad team getting better. Getting a late ticket means missing out on unexpected, rousing affairs like last week's wins over the Dallas Mavericks and Cleveland Cavaliers. And it means missing out on rare games like tonight's, when a loss felt like a win.

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