Wednesday, April 27, 2011

One Half Shapes The Future For Two Franchises

As the buzzer sounded for the end of the first half during the fourth game between Memphis and San Antonio, the Grizzlies players headed into the locker room with a two-point deficit. They understood the ramifications if they were to lose this one; a trip back to Texas with the series tied.

Most teams would buckle under the pressure of trying to pull off a big upset over the top seed, especially when comparing the two franchise’s roster experience in the postseason. The core of San Antonio have been together for nearly a decade and have already accumulated numerous championships in that span, while Memphis has only four players on their roster who have actually played during the playoffs.

With those credentials, the smart bet would be on the Spurs to even up the series and the Grizzlies to falter in the second half.

Unfortunately for Tim Duncan and his pals, Memphis didn’t care about the odds.

In one of the most stunning halves of play in NBA playoff history, Memphis came out swinging by converting countless big shots and swarming San Antonio with shut down defense that created hordes of uncharacteristic turnovers by, arguably, one of the savviest teams in recent memory. Once the middle of the fourth quarter hit and a twenty point deficit stood before them, all Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Richard Jefferson could do was sit on the bench and stare dumbfounded out at the hardwood court before them as their reserves finished up the game.

By the time the horn sounded for the end of the game, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Marc Gasol huddled the rest of their team together for their end game, informal team meeting with their raucous and boisterous home crowd shrieking proudly behind them over their win.

Although both teams will go back to San Antonio no matter what the outcome of game four was, that second half changed the outlook of the series and possibly the future of both franchises.

When the seeding for the playoffs were set, it appeared to be a cakewalk for the Spurs. The Grizzlies were a young team that was missing their best player in Rudy Gay and appeared to have insufficient personnel to take on the deep and experienced number one seed in the Western Conference. Just getting a win would be victory enough for a franchise that entered the 2011 NBA Playoffs without ever winning at home in their postseason history.

Now, Memphis has become the hunter and the Spurs are the defenseless prey hoping to somehow evade their now inevitable demise. The Spurs would be the first top seed to get knocked in the first round by an eighth seed since the Warriors beat the top seeded Mavericks in 2007.

Along with a humiliating first round defeat would be the probability that this is most likely the dynasty’s last round of dominance.

With Duncan’s output declining rapidly at the age of 35 and Ginobili’s body breaking down, another title run after this season appears highly unlikely. Teams like Oklahoma City, Chicago, Miami, and Memphis have core players that are entering the prime of their careers in their mid twenties. It would only be a matter of time before the Spurs would be leap-frogged over by other up-and-coming dynasties.

Along with the aging veterans, there doesn’t appear to be an answer as to who will lead this team back to prominence in the future. Although five of the key players are under the age of 28 (Parker (28), Gary Neal (26), Tiago Splitter (26), George Hill (24), and DeJuan Blair (22), aside from Parker, they are only role players who have nowhere near the pedigree or the potential their elder counterparts had at their age.

To put it blatantly: don’t expect the Spurs to come into the Western Conference as the number one seed anytime soon again.

On the flip side, the second half in game four can be a jumping off point for a possible, future dynasty in Memphis.

If anything, those 24 minutes could be the blueprint for their future. They exemplified a team that would never give up, always work hard, and wouldn’t buy into the hype of playing a higher seed. Those are qualities that are not easy to teach such an adolescent squad and harder to maintain when a team is put in a spot they have never experienced before.

For many franchises with a similar roster to the Grizzlies (they have ten players under the age of 26 and only one player over the age of 30), getting a lead on a veteran team and being one win away from their first playoff series can be the start of something bigger down the road. Even if they somehow lose this series, expect this to be a great learning experience in how to be a contender in future postseasons.

One great example is examining the two number eight seeds from the 2010 Playoffs.

The Chicago Bulls entered the Eastern Conference as the last seed and made the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Their young core never experienced the postseason before and relished every moment of it, even though they were bounced out in five games by Cleveland. They rode last year’s experience to become the overall top seed in the East this season and recently took out Indiana to advance into the second round.

On the other side of the bracket is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were the last team to clinch a Western Conference playoff berth in 2010. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s squad was a young team at the time and got their team to the postseason for the first time since they were the Seattle Supersonics in 2005. They pushed the Lakers to six games before they were eventually defeated. Determined to use that series as a building block for their future, they entered the 2011 NBA playoffs as the fourth seed and are now one win away from being a second round team.

Those examples should prove helpful for Memphis as they go forward building a contender.

No matter what happens at the conclusion of this series, the second half of game four will forever live in infamy for both franchises as the turning point in their futures

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