Memphis Grizzlies teach Spurs about natural history

Excluding the zoo, are there actually any grizzly bears in Memphis?

That was the initial question I asked myself in 2001 when the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis.

Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about bears. Everything I thought I knew I learned from the National Park Service. The feds advise those caught in the back country by a curious grizzly to play dead. “Curl up into a ball with your knees tucked into your stomach and your hands laced around the back of your neck,” the feds suggest. “If the attack is prolonged, fight back.”

For six games played over the span of 13 days, Spurs fans were tortured and our team never made it out of their crouch. Fans looked on in utter helplessness as their 61-win team fought the Memphis Grizzlies — a team that appeared bigger, stronger, more athletic, quicker, and (this is more difficult to quantify, but undeniable looking back) hungrier than the Spurs.

Led by an inside presence of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, who looks strikingly similar to a grizzly bear, the Grizzlies charged hard and didn’t let up.

First, they made contact with the Spurs; the Grizzlies made it known from the beginning that it was the Spurs they wanted as their first-round opponents. Unfortunately for the Spurs, success evades those in sports who merely “play dead.”

Out of the gate, the Spurs looked lethargic in Game 1 and it carried over, as they were unable to execute their offense, which had consistently torched most of the league during the regular season. The most consistent aspect of the Spurs performance was their inconsistency — errant passes, missed open looks, an inability to box out Memphis’ bigs, lack of defensive stops at critical points in games, etc. (Then again, I guess it’s hard to properly execute when you’re curled into a ball.)_

One of the series’ most telling moments came during game four when Antonio McDyess, arguably the most laid-back member of the Spurs, yanked out his mouthpiece and chunked it across the court in an act of frustration. After getting handily defeated by the Grizzlies, 104 - 86, McDyess commented post-game, “We’re playing like a bunch of wussies.”

The Spurs got in some punches — most notably Gary Neal’s dramatic Game 5 three-point heave that extended the series. But in hindsight, the shot looked more like a breather from a bear hug than anything else.

Since winning the title in 2007, the Spurs have only won three playoff series in seven opportunities. In the last three years alone, only one series victory. After beating the Dallas Mavericks in last season’s first round, the Spurs are a combined 2 - 8. Six straight playoff road losses. The fourth number one seed in NBA history to be dismissed by an eight seed.

It’s no secret that Spurs fans were spoiled during the regular season. Adversity existed during the regular season, most prominently toward its end, but it never felt insurmountable.

That was until we met the Grizzlies.

For six games, I can’t recall ever feeling confident. By the end of it, I felt angry, frustrated, sad, confused, shocked, and most of all — relieved.

Maybe I’m just slow, but it’s too early to accurately articulate the lessons taken from this season.

However, I can say two things with complete conviction.

First, knowing what it feels like to be a Dallas Mavericks fan is unbearable.

And, there really are Grizzlies in Memphis.

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