Before last weekend, the last time the Memphis Grizzlies traveled to San Antonio to begin a playoff series, back in 2004, they lost the first game by 24 points. The last time a Grizzlies squad had taken 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 start.
But that's all over now.
On Sunday, in San Antonio, Shane Battier buried the past by burying a shot — a three-pointer from the left wing with 23.9 seconds left in the game that put the Grizzlies, down 98-96 at the time, ahead for good. Moments later, the team secured its first ever playoff win, taking down the San Antonio Spurs 101-98. It was fitting that it was Battier — the one member of this Grizzlies team who had that 0-12 on his resume — who finally lifted this burden from the franchise's back.
But if Battier's shot put the past in its place, it also — in concert with a four-year contract extension for star forward Zach Randolph that was reported soon after — secured a brighter future.
For two years now, the Grizzlies' average announced home attendance has ticked up about a thousand a season — from 12,745 in '08-'09 to 13,485 in '09-'10 to 14,650 — but has remained in the bottom quarter of the league. But with a first taste of post-season success and a returning core of Randolph, Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and — in all likelihood — Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies will enter this off-season with more hope than ever in franchise history. This should lead to an increase in the team's season-ticket base and an even bigger attendance bump next season.
But enough about past and future. Right now, there's also a present: This is a real, competitive series. The first one Grizzlies fans have ever experienced.
Regardless of what happens in Game 2 Wednesday night in San Antonio, when the Grizzlies return home this weekend to host Game 3 it will be with a chance to retake or extend a series lead.
Since the NBA changed first-round series to a best-of-seven format, only once has a #8 seed upset a #1. And even after relinquishing their home-court advantage, the Spurs still left Game 1 a heavy favorite. But make no mistake: That win in San Antonio on Sunday afternoon was no fluke.
The Spurs boast a coach/player core that has won multiple championships and finished with the NBA's second-best record this season. The Grizzlies had never won a playoff game until last weekend and were the final team to clinch a playoff spot. And, yet, these teams are more evenly matched than you'd normally expect from a 1/8 combination. Between January 1st and Wednesday's Game 2, the Spurs and Grizzlies have the exact same record: 34-18. And the Grizzlies have beaten the Spurs head-to-head 3-1 in that time frame.
In Game 1, the Grizzlies struggled to contain the Spurs' quick guards, and that problem could get worse with the likely return from injury of Spurs star Manu Ginobili. But the Spurs struggled to match up with the Grizzlies' inside game. The Spurs have one good post defender (Tim Duncan) to handle the Grizzlies' two rugged post scorers (Randolph and Gasol, who combined for 49 points on 19-25 shooting). And that problem is not going away either.
In last week's playoff preview column, I cited Gasol and O.J. Mayo as series X-factors: Could Gasol give the team a second post threat to go with Randolph? Could Mayo (3-4 from long range) come off the bench, space the floor, and knock down shots? In Game 1, both players answered in the affirmative. If those trends continue, this series could last awhile. And the Grizzlies will have chance.