CLEVELAND – Sitting on a bluff above the mighty Mississippi River is Memphis, a sleepy southern United States city known for not much more than its savory barbecue meats, being the home of famous rock and roll singer Elvis Presley and for the blues, the music celebrated in the city’s history and on downtown Beale Street, a small strip of neon bars and hustlers.
But a few blocks away at the gleaming FedEx Forum where the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies play, they aren’t singing the blues as much as they are gritting and grinding, the easy slang for the rugged, physical game the Grizzlies play that just might win them an unexpected NBA title.
Memphis has put the Golden State Warriors, this season’s NBA golden children with their 67 wins and Splash Brothers guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, on notice in their conference semifinals series that they are in for a battle. And battles are Grizzlies’ home turf.
Memphis has generally been overlooked in this analytics, high-scoring, fast-paced NBA for playing the “wrong” way, slow, physical, throwing the ball inside first to their bruisers, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, having their hands- on guard Tony Allen smothering shooters, basically disdaining the 3-pointer for tough inside scores, all of what is not supposed to work in the modern, statistics-infected, analytics sports world.
But suddenly the long distance jump shooters like in Golden State and Atlanta are being beaten down in the playoffs while a more traditional team like the Grizzlies finally is opening eyes at a time when it was more like you would close your eyes watching them.
Perhaps part was the environmental bitterness. Memphis got the Grizzlies from Vancouver, one of the great cities of the world, beautiful views, fabulous restaurants, ideal living in a temperate climate on the west coast of Canada for an aging, rundown southern city as much known for the assassination of the great American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr.
The Grizzlies became a footnote in Memphis, reaching the playoffs when they drafted Pau Gasol but never winning a playoff game. They then traded Pau to the Lakers in a deal so reviled around the NBA that legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called it “beyond comprehension.”
It was a cost-saving move for a franchise having financial problems. But general manager Chris Wallace cleverly requested Pau’s brother, Marc, in the deal. Marc was then a well-overweight project not expected to have an NBA career. He became an All-Star.
The deal also created salary cap room to sign former Portland bad boy Randolph, who performed one of the great personality changes since Clark Kent to Superman. Wallace also drafted Mike Conley, thought then to be a glorified appendix to his college teammate and childhood buddy, Greg Oden.
Then the fun — or not so much — started with new ownership, flamboyant technology baron Robert Pera, though with dozens of minority owners. Pera fancied himself a basketball rather than financial man and has since challenged Michael Jordan to a one-on-one game and dunked in the All-Star celebrity game. He hired two former player agents, Jason Levien and Stu Lash, to run basketball operations, while old school coach Lionel Hollins was molding the Grizzlies’ style.
It did produce a surprising eight seed over one seed playoff upset of the San Antonio Spurs in 2011, but generally not quite enough perimeter shooting when it mattered. Then came the dysfunction with Hollins being fired after the 2012-13 season even after going to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Hollins was replaced by assistant Dave Joerger, who by all accounts was working behind the scenes to undermine Hollins to management and ownership and had been hired by a previous coaching regime.
Then Levien and Lash were fired in a management shakeup and reports circulated about an allegedly erratic Pera, who supposedly was demanding Joerger wear a headset in games so Pera could communicate plays. It apparently was untrue and the product of some bitterness in the split.
Similarly word surfaced as well that Joerger was being fired and going to coach in Minnesota. That wasn’t the case, either, as Joerger received an extension.
Still, the environment for the most conservative of teams seemed anything but.
And there was still a further return to the past needed when Joerger in his first full season decided to revamp the offense to fit the modern run-and-shoot style. Not with us, the players said with a 14-18 start. They went to Joerger about midseason and said they were to play the way they have played.
Given it wasn’t working, and that Joerger’s reputation around the NBA wasn’t that great, anyway, after the Hollins fiasco, Joerger went along and went back to, as Allen named it, grit and grind.
The Grizzlies made a late run last season after Marc Gasol returned from injury, though losing to Oklahoma City in the first round in Game 7 when Randolph was suspended.
This season they hung with the Warriors a long time before a late season slip. Some of that was due to the trade for Boston’s Jeff Green. It seemed a steal on paper, but the inconsistent Green did not fit with the starters and the team stumbled. Even Green realized and he asked to play off the bench.
But the Grizzlies had added some shooting last season with Courtney Lee. And when Lee is hitting they are as tough to beat as anyone.
Maybe one more shooter would have made the difference, and they did pick up veteran Vince Carter as a presence off the bench and wily backup guard Beno Udrih, who was vital when Conley had a facial injury in the first round and needed surgery. But Conley returned after the first game against Golden State and has helped make some wonder about Curry’s MVP credentials.
The fried chicken and catfish is tasting a little sweeter these days in Memphis and the ghost of Elvis has the NBA All Shook Up.
Grit and grind, baby. Grit and grind.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”