The Grizzlies may have lost the battle for the 2015 NBA championship, but long ago, they won the war for the hearts and minds of a million Memphians.
A s the sun rose over the Bluff City on a glorious BBQ Festival Friday morning, I’d already started working on the post for my Memphis Flyer blog that I would use if the Grizzlies’ season ended, and the quote right at the top was from T.S. Eliot: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” In all honesty, that kind of epitaph seemed something of a no-brainer; down three games to two in the Western Conference semifinals to the NBA’s best regular-season team, the Golden State Warriors, the Griz had lost the previous two games, each by more than 20 points. With the injury report filling up and the Warriors hitting their stride, it seemed like the Grizzlies would again be overmatched against the best offensive team in the league, and another 20-point trouncing to close out the series seemed a more-than-likely outcome.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. Instead of the blowout most of us secretly feared, the Grizzlies’ season ended with a feisty 108-95 loss to a Golden State team that was just flat-out better. The home team went down swinging. They fell way behind early, rallied mightily in the third quarter, even getting within one point with 2:49 left in the period. But when the hapless Jeff Green shot a rushed three-pointer that missed, and the Warriors ran it the other way (where Andre Iguodala buried a three of his own), a crowd about to go nuts after taking a two-point lead was reduced to silence. The Griz were down four again.
It all unraveled from there, and for the rest of the game the Grizzlies’ starters (all of whom had played huge minutes, as you’d expect) were running on fumes. The substitutions started happening, and when Green got roughly blocked taking a three at the end of the third quarter, and MVP Steph Curry launched a 62-foot shot from inside the Grizzlies’ three-point line that sailed through the net without even touching the rim at the other end of the court, there was nothing much left to say about this game or this season. The fourth quarter felt like a formality, the turbulent recession of a wave that had already broken onto the sand.
There will be lots more said about just how successful this particular season was. No doubt the Grizzlies’ ever-present lack of offensive firepower and outside shooting played a big role in their elimination. But so did the laundry list of injuries to Mike Conley — a wrist issue, a bum foot that never got all the way healed, a broken face with titanium plates in it and a nasty recovery from a tough surgery, and then an ankle injury on top of all of that made his running labored — and the fact that Tony Allen gamely tried to play Game 6 when he could neither run nor jump because of his hamstring injury. The Grizzlies got bitten by the injury bug at the worst possible time; anyone who says that didn’t play a factor is being dishonest.
But this memorable season is now history, and while the sports blogs and talk shows will be humming all summer long about what next year’s team will look and play like, there’s no time like the present to speak one final time about what 2014-15 was about, for all of us.
This, after all, was a legendary regular season that turned into a frustrating one, then turned back into a legendary playoff run featuring a point guard who put a mask on and carried the team to some improbable wins, even though he had no business doing so.
True, we didn’t get to see these Griz play for as long as we’d hoped, because in the end they weren’t who we wished they would be. But that’s how things go sometimes, and even in those moments it’s better to embrace what’s there than be dissatisfied by what isn’t.
Now is the time for gathering ourselves, catching our breath, remembering the thundering roar of the Forum when the masked Mike Conley was introduced before Game 3, the way every other sound in the world was drowned out by the howl of the crowd, even the sound of our own thoughts. In that roar, somewhere, is everything . . .
photograph by brandon dill