|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2011||[Print without images]|
|Shane Battier congratulates Kevin Durant after the Thunder rolled in Game 7.|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The final day of the Memphis Grizzlies' fairy-tale postseason began for Michael Heisley back in St. Patrick's Catholic Church near his home in suburban Chicago.
The NBA's most bashed owner not named Donald Sterling said he felt the need, no matter what was going to happen on this elimination Sunday, to register the most formal expression of gratitude he could muster before jumping on a flight to OKC.
"To thank God," Heisley said, "for what he's done for me."
If you remember where his Grizzlies were just two short years ago, having won a whopping 24 games in their first full season post-Pau Gasol, Heisley's bow-to-the-heavens gratitude makes sense. It made sense even after a stomach-turning Game 7 for the playoff Cinderellas, who couldn't contain James Harden and Nick Collison -- let alone Kevin Durant and a suddenly pass-happy Russell Westbrook -- and shot the ball worse than they broke down defensively in the second half.
What did you expect? Game 7 on the road finally proved to be too much for the West's No. 8 seeds, but what did you think they'd do when the ride finally ended?
Even after this 105-90 pounding, pouting was not an option. Not even after the Grizzlies' 39.8 percent clanking from the field.
As Grizzlies swingman Shane Battier said via Twitter on the way back to Memphis: "We can lament ... missed shots and opportunities, but [we'd] be missing the beauty. One team. And a hell of a run."
A run that began with Battier's Game 1-clinching 3-pointer in San Antonio -- way back on the same Sunday afternoon that his wife gave birth to a baby girl -- is over after 13 games and 30 days thanks mostly to Durant and his under-fire point guard. Durant overcame a 2-for-9 start from the floor to ring up 39 silky points, Westbrook became just the fifth player in history to record a triple-double (14 points, 14 assists and 10 boards) in a Game 7 and Memphis sealed its fate with that dreadful shooting and a bench that supplied nothing now that O.J. Mayo is starting.
The Thunder collapsed around Zach Randolph, dared the perimeter-challenged Griz to win it from the outside and began to pull away in the third quarter when Harden drained three 3s, giving Griz fans yet another name to curse -- along with Tyreke Evans and Steph Curry -- when they rewind to Heisley's 2009 drafting of Hasheem Thabeet with the No. 2 overall pick.
From the Grizzlies themselves, though, there would be no apologies or alibis. They couldn't join the 1999 New York Knicks on the short list of No. 8 seeds to win more than one playoff round, true, but they also couldn't bring themselves to throw chairs in the locker room afterward. Not after what they've achieved.
The Griz never bought into the ridiculous assertion that this team was somehow better with Rudy Gay parked on the bench in his familiar suit-and-sling combo ... and they had every inclination to bemoan his absence louder than ever on a brick-filled afternoon that Gay fittingly watched from the bench in a somber black ensemble. But Randolph didn't want to go out that way. He didn't want to whine about who was missing or how the series might have ended differently had Memphis simply finished off that Game 4 at home that went three overtimes.
|After a heroic postseason, Zach Randolph leaves the court after the Game 7 loss to the Thunder.|
So after scuffling for 17 points and 10 boards against a swarming D that deployed Collison as its point man, Z-Bo chose instead to gush about how Durant stared down the pressure, which threatened to heap a lot more on those skinny shoulders than a backpack had OKC failed to close the Griz out at home.
"He's one of my favorite players," Randolph said. "You've got to give him kudos and give him respect."
Said Grizzlies guard Tony Allen: "[Durant] pushed the turbo button on us today."
The Griz are thus headed for a summer of inevitable panic over the fate of restricted free-agent center Marc Gasol, who will undoubtedly be expensive for Heisley to keep after last summer's signing of Gay, Mike Conley's extension in October and the extension Randolph received between Game 1 and Game 2 of the San Antonio series.
Even the perpetually sunny Battier acknowledged the Grizzlies will have another problem when next season starts even if they do manage to re-sign Randolph's frontcourt sidekick.
"I told the guys [already] that the danger of next year is managing expectations," Battier said. "The E-word. It's a tough dragon to tame."
Yet within seconds, Battier was back to awestruck when he started reflecting upon what this team accomplished, probably since he's the only player on the current roster who was there for those three straight first-round sweeps suffered by the Pau-led Griz in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
"Found money," Battier called it.
As in money you find lying on the street.
A defiant Gay, meanwhile, is convinced that neither he nor the Grizzlies are going anywhere. He's ignoring both the speculation about a possible offseason trade to make it easier for Memphis to afford re-signing Gasol as well as the suggestion that the Griz can't possibly be fortunate or smart enough to keep this going.
"We're a playoff team and we're gonna [stay] a playoff team," Gay said. "Get with us or get lost."
Said Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, who like his owner has found vindication because of what Randolph, Marc Gasol and Lionel Hollins' coaching has delivered: "We don't want to be a one-hit wonder. We want to be a long-running series."
Heisley insists he has the same wish. The 74-year-old's eyes dance when he talks about the overflow crowds at the historically empty FedExForum and the way Beale Street has been filling up with Grizzlies revelers, even at a time that the region has been lashed with devastating floods.
He won't outright promise that Gasol will be back, but Heisley does echo Gay's confidence about keeping these laughingstocks-no-more in the West elite.
On young Gasol, Heisley said: "Marc will decide whether he wants to be here. We will aggressively go after him. He's a restricted free agent, so we can match whatever's out there. But obviously if Marc wants to leave, I'm going to have a different attitude than if he wants to stay. I hope he wants to stay. And after what we've done in the playoffs, I think he will."
As far as everything else ...
"I think we've got an incredible nucleus of guys," Heisley said, referring also to the unheralded Hollins, who locked up an extension of his own with a firm, confidence-inspiring hand that made the Grizzlies believe they could knock off the 61-win Spurs and come within one win of the Western Conference finals even without dependable shooting.
"I think, quite frankly, that we're poised to be a real factor in this league going forward."
The sort of factor that makes a man, after years of scorn, feel blessed.
Even on a morning he knew could well usher his team -- no longer known for gift-wrapping Pau to the Lakers or its inability to win a single playoff game -- straight into summer vacation.
"This was my dream when I came to Memphis," Heisley said, expounding on the sights and sounds of the past four weeks and what they made him say at church.
"Maybe all the trials and tribulations made it sweeter."