We’ve seen this movie before, the one in which David meets Goliath, Rocky Balboa fights Apollo Creed, William Wallace offers the bloods of thousands of Scots in return for a small taste of freedom. It’s the one where the underdog, shorthanded for some reason, fights tooth and nail for a shot at something greater than they could’ve ever imagined. An opportunity to make history. An opportunity to make a name for themselves. A blue collared tale a nation can relate to.
Last season, this was the story of the Memphis Grizzlies. After the most successful regular season in franchise history, they came face-to-face with the perils of the apocalypse that is the Western Conference. With a fifth seed, they opened the playoffs with a series against the L.A. Clippers, who many believed had their number. Then, after they surprised many by dismantling them in six games, a second round matchup against another hobbling powerhouse was on the books; one that could have brought their Cinderella story to a harrowing end with the help of a one-man wrecking crew in Kevin Durant. The Thunder won game one thanks to a late surge led by star, setting a pace they were expected to maintain. Following that, the Grizzlies flipped the script and dominated the fourth quarter to tie the series 1-1 in the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Then they whittled off two wins at home in nail biting fashion, pushing the Thunder to the brink of elimination. In what was the final game of the series, the Grizzlies and Thunder battled for 48 minutes before Durant missed a routine pull-up over Tony Allen that would’ve tied the game and sent it into overtime. With that, the Grizzlies advanced to the Conference Finals — a place nobody expected them to be when they fell into a 0-2 hole against the Clippers just weeks before.
Without Russell Westbrook donning his usual getup, Durant was faced with a colossal task in that series, one that was too heavy even for his broad shoulders to carry. In five games, he struggled, averaging 28.8 points on 42.1 percent shooting from the floor. He looked human, for once — a testament to the suffocating defensive schemes the Grizzlies threw his way — missing game-winners and turning the ball over at a high rate. As a result, their championship aspirations came to a grinding halt, while the Grizzlies continued their unlikely climb up the NBA’s steep mountain.
Less than 12 months later, we’re here again. The Grizzlies found themselves fighting for a playoff spot until the very last day of the regular season, after they started slowly out of the gates thanks to a run of unfortunate injuries – not an ideal situation for a team looking to repeat last season’s success. With the seventh seed in their hands and their backs against the wall, many expect their playoff run to be short-lived. They’re still the same defensive squad, living up to the grit-’n-grind bill, and with some mid-season acquisitions, their offense received a much needed facelift. But, while the Thunder dealt with lethal injury bug, too, losing Russell Westbrook for an extended period of time with a knee injury, Kevin Durant exercised some demons in his absence, proving to the world that, in wake of a series which exposed a few shortcoming to his game, he is a changed man. A historic run in January put any concerns to bed, and since his point guard has returned to the lineup, the two have have looked like that the dynamic duo that led the Thunder to the NBA Finals two years ago.
As unexpected as the Grizzlies’ run was last season, there was a glimmer of hope. A pair of injuries to Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook left the door ajar, and a game two victory on the Thunder’s home court was what they needed to get their foot in the Wester Conference Finals door. But now that Westbrook is back to his spry-self, the complexion of the series does indeed change. And, seeing as last season’s five-game series was decided by an average of 4.8 points per game, the combination of Westbrook’s return and Durant’s play as of late could be enough to tip the scales in the Thunder’s favor. However, in saying that, it’s possible that the Grizzlies still hold the blueprint on how to slow down the leagues leading scorer.
Time will tell if the Grizzlies are truly out of their depth, here, and there are plenty of questions that remain to be answered over the next few weeks. The jury is still out on Courtney Lee, and his consistency remains a concern. While the Grizzlies have been able to routinely carve out a pound of Durant’s flesh in the past, that knife may now be blunt after being overused. Either that, or his skin has just become impenetrable. Nevertheless, we’ve seen how this has played out before: a tough, resilient Grizzlies team that has no business pulling off upsets, waltzes into a hostile environment to steal a few games away, and before you know it, they’re the ones calling the shots. They did it against the Clippers. They did it against a beaten up Thunder squad. And they’ll be looking to do it again.
I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.