The last time the Memphis Grizzlies played the first game of a playoff series in San Antonio, back in 2004, they lost by 24 points. The last time a Grizzlies squad took the floor for a playoff game — at home against the Dallas Mavericks in 2006 — they lost by 26 points.
Those were suitably dreary bookends for this franchise's worst-ever 0-12 playoff record.
But that's all over now.
Appropriately, it was Shane Battier — the one member of this Grizzlies team who has that 0-12 on his resume — who finally lifted this burden from the franchise's back. He lifted it Sunday afternoon, in San Antonio again, with 23 seconds left, his team down 98-96.
These teams — a #1 seed whose star/coach combo have won four titles together and a #8 seed who'd never won a playoff game — exchanged blows for three-and-a-half-quarters. Then, midway through the fourth, the Grizzlies made their unlikely move: A seven-point run — O.J. Mayo corner three off Mike Conley feed, Tony Allen transition lay-up off Conley touch pass, Allen mid-range jumper — gave the Grizzlies a 92-85 lead with less than four minutes to play.
It was at this point, I imagine, that Grizzlies fans began to believe. Really believe. Not hope. And it was at this point that the basketball gods punished this belief with two utterly excruciating minutes: A 10-0 Spurs run in which four straight missed free throws (two each from Allen and Marc Gasol) alternated with straight-away three-point bombs from Spurs forward Matt Bonner.
The collapse put the Grizzlies down four with under a minute to play, and suddenly the road map looked familiar again. You see, the three previous Grizzlies playoff series, the three sweeps, always went the same way: There was always one 20+ point blowout — like that first game in San Antonio and that last game in Memphis, contests 1 and 12 of the dozen defeats. Two other games in each series were run-of-the-mill beatings, losses ranging from 8-17 points. But each year there was one game that tantalized: There was Mike Miller missing a potential game-winner against the Spurs on the night Hubie Brown received his Coach of the Year award. There was Game 2 in Phoenix, in which Pau Gasol went nuts (28 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists) but it wasn't quite enough, the team pulling up short with a 108-103 defeat. And there was that night in Memphis, in 2006, where Dirk Nowitzki picked up a loose ball and tossed in a dagger, when Chucky Atkins missed the layup.
With a minute to go, today was going to be that game. The one that came up just short. But then Allen found Gasol for a lay-up — 96-98 — and Spurs guard Tony Parker missed a jumper, and Zach Randolph secured a defensive rebound, and there we were: Mike Conley dribbling up the right sidelines, pulling up, crossing over, gliding toward the lane, and floating a bounce pass to Battier on the opposite wing.
The pass was a little low, the extra split second it took Battier to catch, recover, and get into his shooting motion allowing Parker to close out strong. But with 23 seconds on the game clock, Battier rose up and buried the shot. Buried the past. A few seconds later, the Grizzlies left the floor with a 101-98 victory — Randolph — who, with Gasol, had led the way — barking at his teammates as they headed toward the locker room, home-court advantage in this best-of-seven-game series now theirs, message clearly sent: These are not the same old Grizzlies.
Game 2 is Wednesday night in San Antonio. I'll go into much more detail about what happened in this game and what it may portend for the rest of the series in my Game 2 preview, coming soon.