If the Memphis Grizzlies needed a reminder of how they would win on Saturday, as they faced a comparatively trivial task against Oklahoma City, it was only five blocks away.
That's where the Mississippi River lapped up to famed Beale Street as it rose toward a prolific crest. It's where nearly 1,100 homes were handed evacuation notices this weekend, and where firefighters rescued 25 residents of a mobile home park just hours before tipoff. To the Memphis community, winning its struggle with the mighty river came down to fighting every moment and scrapping for every break.
The seriousness of the 16-point, third-quarter deficit the Grizzlies faced on Saturday paled in comparison to that real-life adversity. But a packed FedExForum could still relate to the sense of urgency the Grizzlies showed on Saturday as Memphis battled and scrapped its way back from a grim deficit to the celebratory roars of its embattled community. Just as Oklahoma City seemed to wash away Memphis' home-court advantage and its hope for an extended playoff run, the Grizzlies rediscovered the identity that got them to this point in a 101-93 win that put them back in control of the Western Conference semifinal series with a 2-1 lead.
Memphis finally started playing with an underdog's urgency again. And as the Grizzlies once again overcame their downtrodden identity, the 18,119 fans who escaped to FedExForum frenetically waved towels in a passionate message that seemed to speak about more than basketball: "Memphis Believe."
That's the attitude that made the Grizzlies the shocking sentimental favorites of these playoffs. But it's an edge they seemed to lose in a nine-point loss in Game 2. The positive press stemming from their unexpected successes seemed to go to their heads. Zach Randolph, Memphis' leading scorer, started agreeing with pundits who praised his game. Memphis started playing with the ease of a favored team. And Oklahoma City brought reality thundering down by shoving Memphis out of the paint and scrapping its way back to a series tie.
That game should have provided the necessary reminder: This is a team full of underdogs, and they need to play like it. The roster boasts a single All-Star Game appearance, and that was from Randolph, who was traded three times in the previous three years. The offense is run by Mike Conley, who spent his first three seasons fighting off his many critics. And they're aided by reserves Tony Allen and O.J. Mayo, who drew their greatest amount of press this season when they fought over a gambling debt on a team flight.
They can't ride the back of an elite talent, like Oklahoma City can with Kevin Durant. They can't expect to dominate in the post with Marc Gasol, who has spent his career in brother Pau's shadow.
But as they showed against San Antonio, if these Grizzlies scrap for loose balls and rebounds, get physical on defense and keep fighting possession by possession, remarkable things can happen.
That's just what happened on Saturday. The Grizzlies spent the first three quarters getting out-scrapped on long rebounds, out-hustled for loose balls, and physically beat down in the low post. By the start of the fourth quarter they were trailing by 13 points and the series was slipping away.
And then, they started battling like an underdog again.
Allen, who to that point had committed little ink to the stat book, put on a clinical performance in defending Durant, the league's two-time scoring champ who couldn't get a touch on most possessions in the fourth quarter and overtime, let alone a score. With Allen fighting through screens, blanketing Durant off the ball and staying in front of him on it, Allen held the two-time All-Star to 2-of-10 shooting in the final 17 minutes -- a lack of involvement that will bring plenty of questions to Thunder coach Scott Brooks in the days to come.
The Grizzlies got tough down low, scoring nearly half of their final 38 points in the post while hitting nine of their final 17 attempts in the paint -- this after shooting 34 percent from those same spots through the first three quarters.
Conley outplayed his All-Star counterpart Russell Westbrook in the closing minutes, sinking a three-pointer that sliced the Thunder's lead to three points with six minutes remaining, and a pull-up 19-footer three possessions later that brought the Grizzlies to 84-83.
When it was finished, the Thunder had managed just 17 points in the final 17 minutes, and left the floor thoroughly crushed.
And understand, this wasn't Derrick Rose taking over a game to give Chicago a lead over Atlanta, or LeBron James and Dwyane Wade driving Miami's dominance over Boston.
This was team basketball overcoming star power, and a packed arena manically waving their gold towels couldn't get enough. Their cheers when Sam Young threw down a devastating tomahawk slam early in the Grizzlies winning run tested the structural integrity of FedExForum, and drowned out Brooks' screams for a timeout in the final seconds of regulation.
Memphis has bought into this team not because of its flash and celebrity, but because of its grit and tenacity. And in the games to come it will be important for the Grizzlies to remember that, just like their community, they are the underdog in this battle. But if they keep fighting and scrapping, they've shown that there will be reason to believe.