Tuesday April 26th, 2011

MEMPHIS -- Explain it, O.J. Mayo. Please, try.

Explain how a team that finishes 15 games behind San Antonio is now one win away from booting it out of the playoffs.

Explain how a roster devoid of a single All-Star this season is coming up with clutch shots in the fourth quarter while the one with two (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili) can't buy a bucket.

Explain how a team that was rocked like a piñata by distractions during the regular season is now humming along while the team that cruised to the top spot in the Western Conference suddenly looks rattled.

"All I can say is hard work," the Grizzlies' Mayo said. "It's in our DNA. We have experienced much more adversity than normal. But our work ethic, that never changed. The guys in this locker room are about non-stop work."

Could it be that simple? Maybe. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins thinks so. A two-point halftime deficit to the best team in the West might be acceptable to some. Not Hollins. Deep in the bowels of the FedEx Forum, he lit his team up. You're too complacent, Hollins told them. Too passive. A step slow. Think a 2-1 series lead against these guys means you've accomplished something? Think again.

"By the time he was finished," Mayo said, "guys couldn't wait to get out of the locker room."

Soon after they did, the game was over. Memphis blitzed San Antonio with a 12-0 run to open the third quarter and never looked back. When the Spurs winged a hard shot in their direction (like the 7-0 run in the third that cut the lead to five), the Grizzlies hit back harder. They outscored San Antonio 30-15 in the third quarter and turned the fourth into a glorified summer league scrimmage, with Gregg Popovich emptying his bench with just under six minutes to go and Ish Smith sealing a 104-86 win with a couple of nationally televised buckets.

"I think everybody started to smell blood," point guard Mike Conley said after the Grizzlies moved within one victory of advancing to the second round for the first time in franchise history. "They were trying to knock us out and trying to get a big lead on us but we kept fighting back. I think we started to realize with a couple of more punches, we would have them."

It was difficult to watch San Antonio wither in the face of Memphis's pressure, like a proud old champion simply unable to fight back. Ginobili called the Spurs' effort "sad," admitting that when the Grizzlies' shots started to fall, his team's fire was quickly snuffed out. Statistically, it was the Spurs' best shooting performance of the series (46.7 percent), but a combination of turnovers (17), sloppy defense (the Grizzlies were in the bonus three minutes into the third quarter) and an inability to match Memphis' intensity ultimately did them in.

"The whole team is very frustrated," point guard Tony Parker said. "I mean, we go the whole season and get that first seed, and now we're one game away [from] being eliminated."

As the dirt continues to pile on the Spurs' grave, it can't be understated just how good the team is that's shoveling it on top. These Grizzlies aren't an aberration. They aren't just a team that walked into a winnable matchup. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are both big and skilled, physical and able to play with finesse. Conley has come into his own in this series, and the perimeter tandem of Shane Battier and Tony Allen can lock up any scorers you send at them.

Memphis lost its best wing scorer (Rudy Gay) to injury at midseason, dealt with a drug suspension (Mayo) and a brawl on the team plane (Mayo and Allen). And yet, the Grizzlies have handled adversity like a bunch of seasoned pros. "Young" is going to be a word attached to Memphis, but as this series has shown, youth doesn't just bow to experience.

"As I've always said, it doesn't matter who is the better team during the regular season," Hollins said. "When you get to the playoffs, each series you have to be the better team."

They still need to win one more, Hollins quickly reminded a roomful of reporters after Game 4. And that next one won't be easy. Battier called knocking out a champion "the toughest thing to do in sports." And he's right. The Spurs won't go quietly, not with a wealth of big-game experience on that roster and the looming possibility that 35-year-old Duncan might call it quits after this season.

Memphis will have to come ready to work in Game 5 on Wednesday. But that, Mayo reminds us, is something no one in the Grizzlies' locker room has ever forgotten.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.