Playoff time in Memphis is a special thing, a time when we as a city come together to become the best version of ourselves. In a town that already spends most of its time thinking about basketball anyway, the NBA postseason brings about something like a religious fervor, a common belief, a unified zealotry.
The Grizzlies have now made the playoffs every year since 2011, the only Western Conference team other than the Spurs to do so, and each year we get a slightly new variation on the same "Believe Memphis" theme. This year, the Grizzlies' first-round matchup is against the Portland Trail Blazers, the first time the Griz have played them in the postseason. The seven previous series since 2011 were all played against the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers, so it's nice to see some different players in different uniforms for a change.
It's also a matchup that favors the Grizzlies. Memphis swept the regular season series, but it's more how they did it than that they did it: Portland lacks the interior defense to guard Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol for an entire game (though they certainly have good post players overall, especially LaMarcus Aldridge), and the Grizzlies' swarming defense causes serious problems for their primary scoring threats. Injuries to Portland guards Wesley Matthews, who is out for the year with an Achilles injuy, and Arron Afflalo, who has a shoulder injury and seems to be aiming to return as soon as possible, mean that the Blazers, who normally rain 3-pointers on opponents to space the floor while Aldridge and point guard Damian Lillard go to work, are limited to relying on Aldridge and Lillard to carry more than their fair share of the load.
The Grizzlies have injuries, too. Mike Conley and Tony Allen both missed long stretches to close out the regular season, and while both returned and played well in Game 1, one could see that they had to adjust to being back in a game situation after sitting for so long. Allen, who is suffering from a hamstring injury, was clearly still having a little difficulty doing what he wanted to do, some of which may have just been rust from sitting since the beginning of April. Conley, on the other hand, was magnificent on both ends, scoring efficiently, using his hesitation move coming off screens to get open, and creating problems for Lillard on the defensive.
There may have been a hint of exorcism at play in Game 1, as well: The last time the Grizzlies opened up a playoff series with home-court advantage was the 2012 first-round opener against the Los Angeles Clippers, in which they gave up a 27-point lead and lost — maybe the most emotionally devastating loss for the Grizzlies ever in FedExForum. When the Griz got out to a similar lead over Portland, there was always a sense that "We've seen this before." The Blazers made a run in the fourth quarter, but this time, Allen stopped it with an emphatic two-handed slam.
As dominant as the Grizzlies' Game 1 performance was, the series is far from over. Portland is a team with quite a bit of offensive firepower, and even given their injuries, still has several players who could get hot and have a big game. Lillard and Aldridge probably won't shoot so poorly again. The playoffs are about the long game: who can adjust to what the other team is doing, who can neutralize those adjustments and make a counter-move, who can be the first to will themselves to four victories.
I don't expect a Grizzlies sweep of the series. Portland will have at least one home game where their offensive firepower is unleashed and the Griz can't string together enough stops to keep up, and the Blazers' insane home crowds are deservedly legendary. They're not a team that will roll over and give up, not even when they're missing key players against a team that swamped them even before those injuries. That said, I do think the Grizzlies deserve to be the favorites in the series, and that they'll take care of business against the Trail Blazers (no matter how many games it takes) and advance.
Beyond the first round lurks a matchup with the winner of the Golden State/New Orleans series (which is for all intents and purposes guaranteed to be the Warriors), and the Grizzlies' health will be just as important in that series as it is in the current one. But that's not what matters right now: Right now is about reveling in another spring of postseason play. Nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs — nothing but the roar of a FedExForum crowd, and a parade of uniquely Memphis moments playing out on the court and in the arena.