It happened with four minutes and thirty-nine seconds left in Game 6 of this first-round series with the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, when Randolph put a wobbly team on his sturdy back and turned a tense crowd into a tent revival.
Randolph's moment was prepared by a dramatic narrative and emotional arc built over 44 minutes of high-stakes basketball in front of a first wild, then nervous, then overcome collection of 18,119 fans.
The Spurs scored two points from the foul line in the game's first possession. But, after that, feeding on pure emotion and noise and adrenaline, the Grizzlies exploded with a 20-4 run.
It was crazy basketball. Mike Conley picked up two fouls within the first two minutes — the one thing the Grizzlies feared most all season — and went to the bench. Rookie sub Greivis Vasquez responded to his early entry with six points in his first 94 seconds. (Pressure? "Oh, he loves that," Marc Gasol said later. "He's from Venezuela. Trust me. It's a lot rougher over there.")
Tony Allen had three steals within the game's first four minutes. It was chaos — the kind the Grizzlies tend to thrive on. And they did, but lost amid the clamor were bad shots (Allen, Randolph, and Vasquez were a combined 0-5 from three-point range in the first quarter. Designated long-range shooters O.J. Mayo and Shane Battier combined for zero attempts the entire game) and ragged execution.
Eventually, the Spurs settled down and came creeping back — cutting a 14-point Grizzlies lead down to 8 at the end of the quarter.
For the next two quarters, the Spurs pushed but the Grizzlies wouldn't break — the lead ranging from one to eight (with one brief tie) until midway through the fourth.
And then the Grizzlies broke: A brilliant Manu Ginobili shot followed by a disastrous Tony Allen offensive possession. Another brilliant Ginobili shot followed by another disastrous Allen offensive possession. And then Antonio McDyess hit a long jumper, and the Spurs took a lead — 80-79 — for the first time since the opening minute.
Tonight, the Memphis Grizzlies became only the second team ever to win a best-of-seven first-round playoff series against a top-seeded team, beating the San Antonio Spurs 99-91 in front of 18,119 fans.
They road the back of Zach Randolph, who scored 13 points in the final 4:24, bringing the Grizzlies back from a one-point deficit and turning a tense crowd into a tent revival.
Now, roughly 36 hours from now, the Grizzlies will begin a second-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Tipoff for Game 1, in Oklahoma City, is noon on Sunday.
More on tonight's game to come.
Those other three playoff series? Remember those? They now seem to have barely existed. With this terrific series, Memphis basketball fans have gotten — finally — a sense of what real, competitive NBA playoff basketball is like.
Let's look at the range of NBA playoff experience this series has given local fans already:
Game 1: The First Win/The Unexpected Win: Game 1 provided the Grizzlies franchise with its first ever playoff win, obviously. But it also provided an unexpected win — a series-opening road upset over a higher-seeded team. And it provided the franchise's first bit of positive playoff lore with Shane Battier's go-ahead three-pointer in the final minute.
Game 2: The Hard-Fought Loss: Okay, so this wasn’t a new genre of playoff game for the Grizzlies — each of the team's three previous post-season appearances boasted one — and only one — such game. But it had been awhile, and fighting back but coming up short felt a little better when the team had already banked a road win. In a must-win for the Spurs, with Manu Ginobili making his series debut, this was a single-digit game, buzzer-to-buzzer, and the Grizzlies rallied from an 8-point deficit down the stretch to make it a single-possession game in the final minute.
Game 3: The First Home Win: The home crowd fanned-up in a major way — Grit-Grind shirts, "Welcome to the Grindhouse" banners, The Giant Head of Eva Longoria, awesome noise and energy throughout — and were rewarded with their first home playoff win, capped by a Zach Randolph game-sealer and a Z-Bo chant ringing throughout the FedExForum corridors. The happiest the building had ever been — at least until the next game.
Game 4: The Home-Court Blowout: Here's one I bet no-one thought would come this year. Down two at the break, the Grizzlies responded with the best half in franchise history, going up 20 midway through the fourth and provoking Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to waive the white flag with nearly six minutes to play.
The San Antonio Spurs were a 61-win regular-season team and have four championship banners hanging in their building. They took to their floor last night down 3-1 in this best-of-seven series, in a fight-for-your-life pride game in front of their hometown fans.
The night before, facing a similar elimination game at home, the Orlando Magic had won by 25.
These Spurs? They were facing a 46-win number eight seed in the playoffs for the first time as a unit, with exactly two individual rotation players who could boast any significant playoff experience. They got their best games of the series from each of their two most dynamic players — Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. They built a 16-point lead in the first half. They benefited from an officiating disparity that had impartial observers figuratively rolling their eyes via Twitter.
And, yet, it took not one, but two desperate long heaves at the basket in the final two seconds of regulation — one pure luck, by admission of its maker, Ginobili, off a broken play and near steal; the other a deep, slightly off-balance three-point buzzer-beater from an undrafted, 26-year-old rookie, Gary Neal — to even force overtime.
Through five games, these Spurs have given no indication whatsoever that they can totally shake these Grizzlies. The Spurs have won two games, both on their home floor, both in doubt into the final minute of regulation. They threw their best possible punch last night and barely eeked out a win.
So Grizzlies fans shouldn't hang their heads about what might have been. They should gear up for a wild Friday night — a Game 6 that starts a hour later than usual, at 8 p.m., on one of the busiest downtown nights ever. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. this morning.
This team — and its fans — shouldn't be distressed about what lies ahead, but eager and defiant.
Time to ante up.
Even two days later, it's hard to get your head around what happened at FedExForum Monday night. A win is one thing, but what fans almost immediately dubbed a "Beale Street Beatdown?" Didn't see that coming.
Having re-watched the second half a couple of times via the TNT, let's pay respect to what occurred before moving onto tonight's Game 5 in San Antonio.
The Prizefight Narrative: Watching Game 4 again, I was struck how much the arc of the game felt like a boxing match:
The Feeling Out: The first half. The Spurs came out aggressive, throwing punches via point guard Tony Parker, who scored 19 first-half points on perfect shooting. But the Grizzlies absorbed the contact, countered, and held their ground, going into the half down 50-48.
The Knockdown: The Grizzlies open the second half on a 14-0 run, doing it with the kind of defensive activity and intimidation that had been a regular-season staple — steals, deflections, forced turnovers, transition baskets.
The Recovery: The Spurs take the punch but get back on their feet, responding to the Grizzlies 14-0 run with an 11-4 run of their own, one featuring trademark contributions from each of their big three: A Manu Ginobili three, a driving Tim Duncan dunk, and Parker lay-up.
The Set Up: A flurry of Darrell Arthur jumpers across the third and fourth quarters function like jabs, setting the Spurs up for the big punch.
The Haymaker: At the 5:43 mark, up 91-74, Mike Conley finds Shane Battier standing in the corner. The pass is a little low, but Battier catches and takes a second to reset, then floats in a three-pointer. Ginobili, on Battier, had been sagging into the lane. He turns toward Battier with the pass and starts to come out on him, then just stops. Gives up, really, and just watches the shot. The Griz go up 20. The Spurs call a timeout and clear the bench. Knockout.
There was nearly six minutes left in the game, the Western Conference's top seed — a team whose core has won three titles together — in danger of falling behind 3-1. And what lineup did San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put on the floor? Gary Neal-Danny Green-Steve Novak-DeJuan Blair-Tiago Splitter — three of them playing for the first time tonight, a fourth playing in his first game in the series.
Popovich had seen enough. He'd seen the upstart Grizzlies thoroughly dominate his proud, experienced team — 61-21 in the regular season — for the previous 18 minutes, and he knew there was no coming back. There was only a chance to regroup and make sure key players were rested and ready for an elimination game back in San Antonio Wednesday night. Grizzlies fans have seen a lot this season, but nothing like this.
And now the Grizzlies find themselves on the precipice of doing something that's only been done once before — knocking off a #1 seed in a first-round, seven-game series.
I asked one visiting media member, freshly emerged from the Spurs locker room, what the mood was. "Funereal" was the response. The Grizzlies locker room I'd just come from? Calm, composed. Happy but unimpressed with an accomplishment that doesn't yet amount to much.
"We just won the game," Marc Gasol said in the locker room afterward, shrugging. "We understand that we have not won anything yet."
A few notes in advance of tonight's Game 4 between the Grizzlies and Spurs. The game tips-off at 7 p.m., with a national broadcast on TNT. I'll be joining the Chris Vernon Show from 5-6 p.m. before heading back to the arena to get settled in. Follow night's action on Twitter with me at the FlyerGrizBlog feed. And check back here later tonight — much later, probably — for a full report from the game.
Atmosphere: As of this morning, Game 4 is a sellout, but there are a few questions: Even though this game is now even more important than Game 3, can the atmosphere possibly duplicate what we saw Saturday night? Even though tickets are sold, will today's stormy weather provoke some no-shows? How much will we miss The Giant Head of Eva Longoria — who I'm told will not be making an appearance tonight?
Randolph from Long-Range: Zach Randolph's three-pointer was the shot of the night Saturday, and I wrote about it plenty in my post-game report. But let's take a moment to put Randolph's penchant for long-range shooting into some context, lest celebration become encouragement.
Randolph is a career 28% three-point shooter on an outrageously over-sized 391 attempts. This season, Randolph hit 18% from three on 43 shots, which might not seem like many attempts, but for a frontcourt player who is not a good three-point shooter, it sort of is. The only player in the NBA this season who took as many three-point attempts while shooting a lower percentage was Toronto swingman DeMar DeRozan, who shot 10% on 52 attempts. And the other players with attempt/percentage numbers similar to Randolph's were guards — Andre Miller (37/11), Acie Law (36/17), Gerald Henderson (36/19).
Frontcourt players who don't shoot the three well simply don't shoot it as frequently as Randolph, and while he's done a good job reducing his attempts since joining the Grizzlies, he still launches them too frequently and still clings to that facet of his game too stubbornly. Late in the clock, desperation attempts are fine — and perhaps that game-sealer on Saturday night qualifies — but the Grizzlies need to make sure Randolph doesn't drift out toward the arc too often.
Avoiding Duncan's Defense: Randolph's generally poor three-point shooting wasn't the only troubling fact obscured by Saturday night's big shot. That high-arcing heave was the only attempt Randolph connected on in a rough fourth quarter.
The Lead: First the goal was to get a playoff win, the first in franchise history. That was accomplished last Sunday, when the Grizzlies stole one from the Manu Ginobili-less Spurs in Game 1 down in San Antonio.
Next the goal was to give Memphis its first home playoff win. That happened tonight, happened in such an unlikely way, happened with a Zach Randolph three-pointer at the end of a broken play with under a minute to go. Randolph's heave put the Grizzlies up five with 42 seconds left and sent 18,119 towel-waving fans into an even deeper level of frenzy than they'd been in all night. Randolph then stoked the fans even more by standing at center court, waving his hands.
Three possessions later, the Spurs had a chance to force overtime, but the Grizzlies bottled up Ginobili along the sideline and the clock expired. The Spurs failed to get either a timeout or a shot up.
Now the goal is to win the series. And, if most Grizzlies fans are being honest with themselves, it feels like a realistic goal for the first time. The Grizzlies will take a 2-1 series lead into Monday's Game 4. And the volume on that game just got turned way up.
The "growl towels" are neatly laid out across each seat at an already sold-out FedExForum. Creative homemade signs have been made. Tony Allen no doubt has his 'gas up.'
Tonight, at 6:30 p.m., it's on: Game 3, Grizzlies-Spurs.
There will be adjustments and counter-adjustments, but the biggest change from Game 2 to 3 will be venue.
The atmosphere tonight will be compared to that of the first Grizzlies playoff game, back in the Pyramid, when towels were also waved and Hubie Brown received his Coach of the Year award.
But that was about celebrating the moment and celebrating Hubie. Tonight will be about supporting the home team and trying to rattle the road team. Tonight, minds will be on winning — and not just this game. The atmosphere will have a harder edge.
Home court advantage tends to mean something in the NBA. Just look at the regular-season records of these two teams.
At home, the Spurs were 36-5. On the road, they were 26-15.
On the road, the Grizzlies were 16-25. Back in their building, they were 30-11.
What could home cooking mean for the Grizzlies?
An awful lot went wrong for the Grizzlies in San Antonio last night.
The Spurs threw more double-teams and team-defense attention at slowing down the Grizzlies' inside game, and it worked. In game one, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combined for 49 points on 19-25 shooting. Last night, the pair scored 23 points on abysmal 7-23 shooting. Gasol — who did have 17 rebounds in 44 minutes — had several shots rim out. Randolph — having one of his worst games of the season — was limited in part by foul trouble.
Despite the focus the Spurs put on the Grizzlies' inside game, the team's ongoing struggles with perimeter passing and spot-up shooting became more pronounced. The Grizzlies had a hard time getting good outside looks and a worse time hitting them. As a team, the Grizzlies shot 3-14 from three-point range, with primary shooters O.J. Mayo and Shane Battier following up their 5-6 long-range performance in Game 1 with a combined 1-9 last night. (If you're looking for one definitive difference-maker, that's probably it.)
Meanwhile, the Spurs got back their best perimeter player, Manu Ginobili, who was effective despite wearing a heavy sleeve on his injured right arm: Ginobili had a team high 17 points, with 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals, and used his crafty, jerky, flop-heavy style to get to the free-throw line 13 times.
Sunday's series-starter between the Grizzlies and Spurs was a good day for skilled big men — my favorite type of player.
Once the game started, Tim Duncan looked like he'd been playing rope-a-dope with us all season, scoring 8 first-quarter points on a series of bouncing, energetic dunks, drives, and post moves.
But then things settled down and the skilled-big headliners turned out to be the guys without Hall of Fame credentials.
Two Bigs Are Better Than One: The biggest factor in the Grizzlies' hanging with the Spurs long enough for a Shane Battier three-pointer to steal the game was the production the team got from Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, who combined for 49 points, 23 rebound, 6 assists, and 4 blocks on 19-25 shooting.
Randolph's game was not surprising: His 25/14 was in line with his averages on the season (20/12) and in the season series with the Spurs (23/14).
Gasol's game (24/9 on 9-10 shooting) was somewhat less expected. He'd averaged 12/7 on 52% shooting for the season (down from his 15/9 on 58% last year), and had struggled — to a rather bizarre, probably flukish degree — in the season series with the Spurs (8 points per game on 35% shooting). Gasol had topped 24 points only once in the regular season and scored 20 points only four times.
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.
The Grizzlies begin their first playoff series since 2006 this weekend, meeting the San Antonio Spurs at noon Sunday, with Game 2 on Wednesday night. The series travels north to FedExForum for Games 3 and 4 next Saturday (the 23rd) and the following Monday (the 25th). Can the Grizzlies snap the franchise's record 0-12 playoff losing streak and extend the series further? Can they pull off a big upset?
Let's break it down. In detail:
1. Haven't we seen this before?
Longtime Grizzlies fans — and one current Grizzlies player — might be experiencing a little déjà vu with this series. The last time a Grizzlies team began a playoff run, back in 2004, it debuted against a Gregg Popovich-coached San Antonio Spurs team built around the core trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, who were supplemented by a good group of defender/shooter role players (Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, Hedo Turkoglu, etc.).
Seven years later, this Spurs team looks essentially the same, just with a different group of role players. But this edition of the Spurs actually plays much, much differently. The 03-04 Spurs were a middle-of-the-road offensive team (14th in offensive efficiency) but a defensive juggernaut (first in defensive efficiency, ahead of even the Larry Brown Pistons) built around Duncan's interior presence and Bowen's nasty, physical perimeter defense.
This year's Spurs model is more of an offensive-oriented finesse team by contrast. They're only decent defensively — 11th overall — and haven't been great at defending the paint. They've been a scoring juggernaut instead — second in offensive efficiency, first in effective field-goal percentage, and first in three-point percentage.
Unlike the Spurs' title teams, this version hasn't been built around Tim Duncan's post game but rather around its quick, penetrating guards (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, George Hill), who break down defenses and find the team's phalanx of good three-point shooters.
2. How significant is Manu Ginobili's injury?
Potentially major. Potentially overblown. Ginobili — a lefty — departed from the Spurs' final regular-season game Wednesday night clutching his right elbow. An MRI Thursday revealed a sprain and the official pronouncement from the Spurs is that Ginobili is "doubtful" for Game 1 on Sunday.
Before Grizzlies fans throw a party, let's remember: "Doubtful" is not the same as "out." There are still three days until these teams play their first game, so I'll be certain Ginobili isn't playing when the game starts and he isn't there. (Indeed, Ginobili later tweeted that the pain was almost gone.)
It's official: The Grizzlies will face the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The official schedule for the series as of now:
San Antonio vs. Memphis
Game 1 - Sun April 17 Memphis at San Antonio 12:00PM TNT
Game 2 - Wed April 20 Memphis at San Antonio 7:30PM NBA TV
Game 3 - Sat April 23 San Antonio at Memphis 6:30PM ESPN
Game 4 - Mon April 25 San Antonio at Memphis TBD TBD
Game 5 * Wed April 27 Memphis at San Antonio TBD TBD
Game 6 * Fri April 29 San Antonio at Memphis TBD TBD
Game 7 * Sun May 1 Memphis at San Antonio TBD TBD
I'll have a full series preview up sometime later today or Friday morning.
The Grizzlies' playoff match-up will be determined tonight and will be followed — either tomorrow afternoon or Friday morning — by a lengthy series breakdown on this site. But, for now, let's put a close to our regular season coverage with this, a clip-laden countdown of the season's 10 best moments:
10. Marc Gasol From Deep
I wanted to use the play from late in the March 27th win over the Spurs, where Gasol hit a hook shot to put the team up four in the final minute then stormed down the sideline, hulking up and screaming. But I couldn't find a good clip of that. Instead, for a Gasol moment, I'll go with this end-of-half buzzer-beater during an April 1st win at New Orleans. This was the rare three-pointer that was a power play, Gasol using his strength to push his way through a Hornets defender and bury the — admittedly lucky — shot. Bonus points for O.J. Mayo running over to the prostrate Gasol and pounding him on the chest.
9. Rudy Ties it Up at Phoenix:
A season turning point. The Grizzlies came into the game 8-14, what would turn out to be a season-worst six games under .500. Their previous trip to Phoenix had been one of the most bruising and unlikely losses in franchise history. And they lost a five-point lead with under four minutes to go, eventually finding themselves down three with two seconds to play, inbounding the ball on the sideline. Rudy's clutch corner three sent the game to overtime, where the Grizzlies outscored the Suns 12-6 to win it. This was the moment of ascent for the 2010-2011 Grizzlies.