MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Shane Battier won an NCAA championship and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2001 Final Four. He was the Naismith National Player of the Year that same year, too, and then he became a lottery pick. So the former Duke Blue Devil has had quite the basketball career, more than a decade full of wins and awards and achievements. Which is why it seemed best to turn to him after Memphis won its first playoff series in franchise history, because Battier had the experience and perspective to properly capture what had just happened, because he was a member of those Grizzlies teams that were swept out of the postseason three times early in his career.
Can you put this into words, Shane?
"It is," Battier answered, "one of the greatest feelings I've ever had in sports."
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The Grizzlies beat the Spurs 99-91 late Friday for the fourth time in six games, meaning Memphis will advance to the Western Conference semifinals and start a brand-new best-of-7 series against Oklahoma City, meaning there are only eight NBA teams still playing basketball and one of them is a franchise that didn't have a playoff victory through 15 years until two Sundays ago.
So you can understand the excitement here, right?
The eighth-seeded Grizzlies just eliminated the top-seeded Spurs and became only the second eight seed in history to beat a one seed in a best-of-7 series, and they did it in a city that's forever embraced its college program and mostly ignored its NBA team. FedExForum is typically closer to empty than full for professional games unless LeBron, Kobe or the Celtics are in town. And yet those days now seem in the past because Game 6 soldout in fewer than five minutes, and there were giant cardboard heads of Zach Randolph, O.J. Mayo, Marc Gasol and Tony Allen floating in the stands.
Plus Elvis, of course.
"Emotions are high -- not just for the Grizzlies but for the City of Memphis," said Randolph, and I'll have more on him in a second. "It's a great accomplishment. We have to be happy."
There were many who thought Wednesday's gut-punch of a defeat at San Antonio would serve as the moment where order was restored, and that the Grizzlies would fold and fall the way they were always to supposed to. But it didn't happen because they were never rattled all that much.
A crushing defeat?
Memphis viewed it as a lucky win for the Spurs.
|Zach Randolph scores 10 of Memphis' last 12 points during Game 6. (Getty Images)|
When they took a 14-2 lead, the party was on.
But then the Spurs did what the Spurs tend to do, which is use Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli to cut the deficit, slowly but surely. When Antonio McDyess sank a 15-footer with 4:39 remaining, San Antonio led 80-79 and seemed to secure momentum. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins called a timeout to remind his players to stay composed. Or not, actually.
"I don't remember talking about composure," Hollins said. "All I remember is getting them ready to score."
In one of the great fourth-quarter performances since, well, since Kevin Durant's fourth quarter Wednesday against the Nuggets, Randolph scored 10 of the Memphis' next 12 points in a variety of improbable ways and helped the Grizzlies take a 91-82 lead they never relinquished. The 6-foot-9 forward who came to the Grizzlies with huge question marks two years ago but has done nothing but answer critics since his arrival scored 17 points in the fourth and finished with 31 points and 11 rebounds. It was an effort that earned praise from every angle and put a big smile on the face of Tom Izzo, Randolph's coach at Michigan State who flew in for the game to support his former player.
"Zach's been playing his ass off," Izzo said before tipoff, and though I didn't see him again afterward I imagine the sentiment would've been similar because it was, at least, from San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who talked about the Grizzlies in general.
"They played their asses off," Popovich said. "Obviously I'm sad about the loss but happy for [the Grizzlies] and what they have accomplished. It has been a while for the city. So congrats to those guys."
And with that the Grizzlies are off to Oklahoma City, and they'll be underdogs in that series, too. But there's no sense in telling that to anybody in the Memphis locker room or within the city limits, because the motto "We Believe" that started as a cliche is now more of a rallying cry, and everybody is screaming it in an unprecedented way for this franchise.
"This is history in the making right now," Allen said. "This is history in the making."