NBA AM: Grind City Didn’t Back Down from the Spurs

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They were led by a head coach in his first season on the job. They were down 2-0 in the first round of the playoffs to a team that has made the postseason 20 years in a row. They could have easily folded and gave in to the almighty San Antonio Spurs.

Instead, the Memphis Grizzlies stayed true to their roots.

It was time for Grind City to show up and show the world what they were made of. All it took was a little fire from head coach David Fizdale and plenty of great performances to point them in the right direction.

Fizdale directed quite a bit of criticism toward the referees for how the Grizzlies were officiated during Game 2. He cited a lack of respect for his team that allowed the Spurs to shoot 32 free throws in that game, compared to 15 for the Grizzlies.

“But I’m not gonna let them treat us that way,” Fizdale said after Game 2. “I know [Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has] got pedigree, and I’m a young rookie. But they’re not gonna rook us. That’s unacceptable. That was unprofessional. Our guys dug in that game and earned the right to be in that game. And they did not even give us a chance.”

Rather than give in to the Spurs, the Grizzlies pushed back and came within minutes of forcing a decisive Game 7 in San Antonio. While many may have written the Grizzlies off after that 2-0 series deficit, they weren’t quite ready to give up.

They may not be the flashiest team in the league, and the casual basketball fan may not be able to name more than a few players on the roster, but the Grizzlies proved on the game’s biggest stage that they shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Mike Conley led the charge for the Grizzlies all series long. After becoming the league’s highest-paid player, he proved in the playoffs the contract was no fluke. He averaged 24.7 points, seven assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 44.7 percent from three-point range.

How important was Conley to the Grizzlies this postseason? During the first five games of the season, the Grizzlies were outscored by 60 points in 66 minutes when Conley was off of the court. The dropoff from Conley to the team’s backup point guard was detrimental at times and forced Conley to average 37.3 minutes per game against the Spurs.

“Mike Conley has always been a heck of a player,” Popovich said. “He’s never gotten his due. I’m not just saying that to be nice because we won. I’ve said it probably five times during the playoffs: he’s been the most underrated point guard in the league for a while. Whenever everybody talks about point guards, they mention four or five guys and it’s always the same guys. This kid really has a high basketball IQ.”

It wasn’t just Conley that came up big for the Grizzlies, either. The team relied on stars like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but they also received huge contributions from Vince Carter, JaMychal Green, James Ennis and Andrew Harrison. Carter is 40 years old, while those other three players all have three seasons or fewer of experience to their name.

Matching up against them was a team with title aspirations. They have one of the best players in the game on their roster in Kawhi Leonard. They have a head coach destined for the Hall of Fame, while several other players on the roster could one day be right alongside him. Yet, the challenge still didn’t seem that big for the Grizzlies.

“We fought as hard as we could with what we had,” Conley said. “We had a tough year and guys have had to step up. James Ennis did a great job. Wayne Selden coming in at the end of the year. Troy Daniels. I mean, you go down the list: JaMychal Green. All of those guys really had to take a bigger role against a great team. They are the reason why we were in this. It’s just been a pleasure to play with a group that really leaves it out there like that.”

Although they finished just short of the pulling off an improbable series win, the team will enter the offseason knowing they left everything out on the court.

“I got a group of guys in there right now that’s hurting who really believed in themselves and believes in each other and you can see it in the way that we played,” Fizdale said. “We had a connected group. I feel pain for them.”

If the Grizzlies proved one thing this postseason, it’s that this group can be dangerous given a few minor tweaks and changes. Despite all of the odds against them, they still fought all season long and showed that they won’t go down without a fight.

“The same goal is to get back in the mix to go after a title,” Fizdale said. “I will not waver on that. I won’t waver on how we prepare. I won’t waver on what I say. It will always be about how do we get the Memphis Grizzlies and this city to hold the trophy and have a parade down Beale Street.”

In the end, the Spurs didn’t rook the Grizzlies during this series. The Grizzlies earned the right to compete.