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.
Game 5: The One That Got Away: This was almost an Unexpected Win, but went awry at the end through an unlikely series of bad breaks.
This wasn't a choke job — there were no bad turnovers or missed free-throws in that final stretch before overtime, and the Spurs made a couple of huge shots. But I do think the Grizzlies were too much the bystander in the game's crucial moments — more running the clock out than actively seizing the game.
Nevermind Manu Ginobili's crazy long two-pointer from the corner. That was pure chance — one of those broken plays where the ball is deflected the wrong way and good defense backfires. It happens. But three other moments late suggested passive if not sloppy execution:
1. Up three, the Grizzlies let Ginobili get a barely contested layup too quickly and easily.
2. Then, with a chance to end the game on an in-bounds play with two seconds left — O.J. Mayo racing unguarded into the backcourt — the team took the easy route, getting themselves to the line but giving the Spurs one last shot.
3. Finally, the defense on Gary Neal's buzzer-beater. All kinds of problems here: The entire defense set up inside the three-point line when the Spurs had to have a three and had only 1.7 seconds to get it. Tony Allen guarding the in-bound pass rather than one of the most likely shooters. O.J. Mayo with lackluster individual defense on the shooter. Shane Battier not making the right help defense play. Neal still hit a tough shot — a couple feet behind the line, not totally squared up. But this play was not defended well.
And there was more questionable end-game execution in overtime: Twice the Grizzlies had a chance to tie or take the lead in the final 70 seconds and the two shots they ended up with were a Tony Allen three-pointer (he should never take that shot in that situation, but should also never be put in a position where it's even a possibility) and a long Marc Gasol two-point jumper.
What Will Game 6 Be?
Tonight's game — regardless of the outcome — is going to add yet another significant type of playoff experience to the city's NBA resume.
The Clincher: This is what everyone wants obviously — the first series win and a chance to celebrate it at home.
The Let-Down: A loss tonight would hurt but it would definitely be a new playoff experience for the city — losing a game fans widely expect to win.
If we get the latter, then it will lead to something else new: The Seventh Game, but I think we can all agree that we'd be happy to hold off on that post-season first for awhile.
Now six games into this series, there's not much mystery left to this match-up, but here are a few questions heading into Game 6:
Are the Grizzlies mentally prepared for this?: This is the big one. Tonight, for the first time, there will be as much pressure on the upstart Grizzlies as the veteran Spurs. Can this team shake off the way Game 5 ended? I think they'll be fine for most of the game, but if it's close at the end — as four of five have been so far — I do worry about the team's late-game execution, which has been shaky.
Has the rotation change been good for San Antonio?: The one significant change in this series has been the Spurs using 6'11" rookie Tiago Splitter over undersized sophomore Dejuan Blair for the past two games. And while Splitter has been overwhelmed at times — see the second half of Game 4 — I think his size poses more problems for the Grizzlies than Blair's bulk.
Are Ginobili and Parker on an upswing?: The Spurs two best offensive players each had their best performances of the series Wednesday night. Were they rallying at home or will this carry over? Ginobili has been effective against Tony Allen all series, less so against Shane Battier. Through four games, Ginobili has shot 53% with Allen on the court and 33% with Allen on the bench. Meanwhile, Ginobili has been worse with Battier on the floor (38%) and better (55%) with him on the bench. (Via StatsCube.) Meanwhile, Parker has been strangely ineffective against Mike Conley for much of the series, but I think everyone knows that he's very capable of turning outbursts like the first half of Game 4 and the overtime of Game 5 into the norm. If these match-ups swing hard in the Spurs' direction tonight, it could spell trouble for the Grizzlies.
Will the Grizzlies get some home-cooking?: In the three games at San Antonio, the Spurs have averaged 37 free-throw attempts. In the two games in Memphis, it's been 23. The Grizzlies need that trend to continue.
What will the later start time mean?: It's going to be a mess. An extra hour of drinking — sorry, game prep — with an arena next to Beale Street and a fan base aching for a first series win? It's going to be loud, rowdy, and — hopefully — fun.
Expectation: I think the Grizzlies win this. Everything that's happened in the series suggests that the Spurs can't get any distance from the Grizzlies and that the home court matters for the younger team. My bet is that the Grizzlies register a convincing — but not dominating — victory. But I would never be surprised to see a team featuring Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker beat anybody anywhere.
Further, I hope people realize that this is going to be a great night for the Grizzlies franchise in Memphis regardless of the outcome. Pushing to six games, as the eight seed, and igniting a dormant fan base has been a big achievement for this team. And now there are only two possible outcomes for this series: Grizzlies winning and advancing or forcing the top seed to seven games. Whatever happens from here, the Grizzlies organization and its fans should feel good heading into the summer.
A Final Note for Spurs Fans: My short rallying cry post from yesterday morning drew a few Spurs fans onto the site, who — shocking, I know — took issue with the content and tone of the post.
In case any of them come back today, let me put this into some context: Spurs fans, you have been blessed. Through a combination of lottery luck and a great organization, you have enjoyed an incredible run of success. I admire your team. I think Tim Duncan — more than Shaquille O'Neal or even Kobe Bryant — has been the best player of his generation. I think Manu Ginobili is one of the most dynamic and interesting players in the game. If I had a Coach of the Year vote, I would have given it to Gregg Popovich this year for somehow guiding this team to 61 wins while still resting his Big Three.
But know this: That post wasn't about you or your team. After Game 5, a segment — not a majority — of Grizzlies fans were hanging their heads, citing the local college team's devastating loss in San Antonio a few years ago, thinking that rough loss Wednesday night was appropriately "Memphis." And I hate that kind of woe-is-me fatalism.
I wrote what I wrote as a counter to this impulse and to persuade people to get excited about Game 6 — which will be a major, positive event in this city's brief, rocky NBA history, win or lose — rather than dwell on Game 5. And also to remind them that there is every reason to believe that the Grizzlies have a good chance to win this game.