The Grizzlies started their second-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder the same way they started their first-round series with the San Antonio Spurs: By stealing Game 1 on the road — and home-court advantage along with it.
And they did it in much the same way: By riding their Big Trains — the frontcourt tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. In Game 1 against the Spurs, the Randolph/Gasol combo notched 49 points on 19-25 shooting, with 23 rebounds. Today in Oklahoma City: 54 points on 21-33 shooting, with another 23 boards.
But the comparisons end there.
This was a more surprising win: The Grizzlies had been looking for the Spurs for at least a week and had clear, significant match-up advantages in the paint. With the Spurs' best player, Manu Ginobili, out for the first game, the Grizzlies were well positioned to open the series with an upset.
This time, the NBA schedule-makers had put the team at an apparent disadvantage: Despite being the final team to advance from the first round, the Grizzlies were scheduled in the first of the second-round games. Roughly 36 hours after leaving FedExForum following an emotional series clincher against the Spurs, the Grizzlies tipped off in Oklahoma City — with very little prep time — against a Thunder team rested and waiting for them. It was a recipe for a letdown — mental exhaustion would have been understandable, even expected.
Instead, the Grizzlies didn't just win: They controlled the game from buzzer to buzzer, scoring at least 27 points in each quarter and holding the Thunder under 25 in each of the first three. The Thunder scored the first basket of the game at the 11:40 mark of the first quarter and held a lead for another minute. They never lead again. The high-water mark was a 17-point Grizzlies lead early in the fourth quarter. A 14-4 Thunder run cut it to seven halfway through the quarter, but the Grizzlies would let it get no closer.
The major things that need to happen for the Grizzlies to win this series happened on Sunday, starting with interior play: Perkins has long been considered one of the NBA's very best post defenders, while Ibaka has emerged in recent weeks as an explosive shot-blocker. And while Ibaka had 5 blocks on Sunday, neither of them could handle Randolph or Gasol.
Randolph scored 34 points on a mix of baseline jumpers, tip-ins, and relentless post scores, completing a major coming-out weekend. Gasol mixed paint scored with a perfect 4-4 on free-throw-line jumpers that the Thunder never did cover well.
On the other end, both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook got their points (62 combined), but the Grizzlies' harassing perimeter defense helped turn Westbrook into an inefficient offensive player — shooting 9-23 with 7 turnovers.
This was trademark Grizzlies basketball: Pounding it inside (52 points in the paint), hitting the offensive boards (17), forcing turnovers (18), and taking care of the ball (only 7 turnovers for the Grizzlies, non from Mike Conley).
Sunday's game was probably —Â yet improbably —Â a bit of a perfect storm for the Grizzlies: Randolph and Gasol may not both shoot this well from mid-range again. The turnover disparity may not be quite as starkly in favor of the Grizzlies again. But the basic outline of what the Grizzlies did on Sunday is repeatable. And they'll do it the rest of the series with more rest and preparation time and at least half of their games on a home court where they were 3-0 against the Spurs.
I picked the Thunder in my — admittedly hastily researched and written — series preview Saturday night, something that I gather bothered some fans of a franchise that not long ago didn't have many. Griz Fever is strong now, and more-committed homerism is apparently desired by some.
But most everyone who follows the whole league and deigned to make a pick tabbed Oklahoma City. And for good reason.
Through 82 games, and also through the first round of the playoffs, the Thunder have been the better team. The Grizzlies transformed — and improved — themselves over the course of the season. But so did the Thunder, becoming a tougher team by replacing their Jeff Green/Nenad Krstic frontline with the current Serge Ibaka/Kendrick Perkins one. This opponent didn't appear to face quite the same match-up problems as the Spurs. And they had home-court advantage.
Well, that's gone now. And, based on what we saw Sunday, "better team" has to be seriously in doubt too.
The Thunder will rally, but what I saw Sunday — and what the Grizzlies did in stealing the one game in the series they seemed least likely to win — was enough for me to update my pick. I still think it goes six games, but now I think the Grizzlies will come out on top. If the Thunder win this — and they yet may — it's going to take seven games.
The Grizzlies are only a quarter of the way there and their opponent will appear more formidable in the coming games. But where winning Game 1 against San Antonio made advancement a very real possibility, here taking Game 1 makes — gulp — the Western Conference Finals a very real possibility.