Commentary

Griz storm into uncharted territory

Originally Published: May 16, 2013
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Former Memphis Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley had one piece of advice for Chris Wallace when he hired him to be his general manager.

"Early on he told me we weren't going to get good by taking the standard routes, we were going to have to take some risks," Wallace said just minutes after his Grizzlies beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 88-84 Wednesday night to advance to the Western Conference finals for the the first time in franchise history.

"He said that's how he got to where he was in business, and we've adopted that philosophy here."

Wallace was in Chicago at the NBA pre-draft camp as his team polished off the Thunder in Game 5 of this rugged second-round series. Too far away to take any bows or slap any hands in the locker room.

[+] EnlargeAllen
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesTony Allen gives Kevin Durant a farewell hug after the series ended Wednesday.

But this was a good night for him and everyone who had been with Memphis through the lean years. A very good night.

"We got beat up a lot when we took some of those risks," he said. "But we had no choice but to take 'em. And it seems like the majority of them worked out, some in a big way."

That would be Wallace's polite way of saying he might've known what he was doing when he shipped Pau Gasol to the Lakers for Kwame Brown and his younger brother Marc Gasol back in 2008.

Or that the Grizzlies weren't crazy when they gave point guard Mike Conley Jr. that five-year, $45 million extension in 2010.

Or that free-agent signing that brought defensive stopper Tony Allen here from Boston in 2010 had been a prescient one ... or that the Rudy Gay trade this season just might've been addition by subtraction.

The list could go on, but it already was a good enough night for Wallace and the Grizzlies.

"I'm just so proud of our whole staff," Wallace said. "[Coach] Lionel Hollins took over when we were basically in a start-up phase and has built this into a championship contender. That's special. Because usually the coach who starts you up, isn't the one who finished you. But he's persevered and developed these players.

"It's hard to put into words how important this is to the franchise. It's the farthest we've ever advanced. I mean, it was just a few years ago we got our first playoff win."

Heisley sold the team to billionaire 35-year-old tech mogul Robert Pera last year. Heisley suffered a stroke this spring and is still in a Chicago-area hospital. Wallace wasn't sure if Heisley was watching Wednesday night as the Grizzlies fended off a furious rally by the Thunder in the second half that came up just short as Kevin Durant clanked an open 16-footer with 4.9 seconds remaining that would've tied the score at 86.

It was about as good of a look as Durant had all night. He was in rhythm, he was open, and he was confident.

But nothing much went well for the three-time scoring champion on this night. After carrying the Thunder throughout these playoffs following the season-ending knee injury to Russell Westbrook, Durant was finally spent.

In all he missed 16 of the 21 shots he took Wednesday, turned the ball over seven times, and generally just didn't have it.

As his last shot went off to the right and clanked off the back of the rim, Durant shook his head and looked up to the heavens. There would be no answers for why the Thunder's season had gone so wrong, so fast on this night. It was just over.

"I missed 16 shots but I kept fighting and I kept being aggressive," Durant said. "That's all I could ask for. It's tough to swallow right now, but I'm sure we're going to look back on this down the line and appreciate this tough time."

The Thunder's fall from grace wasn't the story on this night, though.

Somewhere along the way, these Grizzlies have become one of the darlings of the NBA playoffs.

"We America's underdogs, baby," Memphis forward Zach Randolph gushed afterward. "It feels great, man. We work hard. This team's come a long way.

"Where we came from. The way these guys are developing. It just goes to show you, when you keep a core together, when you stick with 'em, good things can happen."

If that refrain sounds familiar in these parts, well, that's because the Thunder were built this way, too.

Both teams picked good young players, bet on them, developed them, and then built around them.

The difference, and what makes the Grizzlies so dang likable, is that their two young stars -- Conley and Gasol -- were never expected to perform like this.

Conley was too small when he came into the league. His jump shot needed to be completely rebuilt. Gasol was a throw-in to the trade for his more accomplished older brother -- a chubby, still-raw center who was regarded by most as a project at best. The first two years they were together in Memphis were downright depressing.

"I don't want to look back. And I don't ever want to go back," said Conley, who finished with 13 points, 11 assists and 7  rebounds Wednesday.

"We won 20 games and couldn't get anybody in the stands. It was rough. I'd go to University of Memphis games and you couldn't believe it was the same arena. I didn't know what FedEx Forum looked like when it sold out."

It's hard to believe those Grizzlies became the fearsome team that has now ousted two of the NBA's glamour franchises in these playoffs -- the Clippers in the first round, and now the Thunder.

"I don't look at it that way," Gasol said. "I always think you have to work today and the result will come tomorrow. I don't think so much ahead of myself or the team."

In other words, save the champagne.

This was a very big night for the Grizzlies. It wasn't the last night, though.

"It's not time to do that yet," Gasol said firmly. "To me it's not time to congratulate everybody.

"I'm a big Quentin Tarantino fan. There's this line [in 'Pulp Fiction'] from Wolf -- which I can't say in front of you guys -- when they [finish] cleaning the car up. He says, 'Let's not do that yet.'

"We're still in the process. We're still not there yet."