(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
Look, the NBA playoffs start this weekend. What did you expect me to write about? The NHL playoffs? The amazing Detroit Tigers? Phil Mickelson?
My Memphis Grizzlies (and they really should be yours too) have made the playoffs for the third straight year. Only four other teams in the Western Conference can lay claim to that achievement over the last three seasons.
The Grizz are fifth despite having the fourth best record in the West and will face the Dallas Mavericks in a first-round game Sunday night at 8:30.
Their seeding wasn’t decided until Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers. A game that the Clippers desperately wanted to lose because the winner got Dallas and the loser got home court against the third-seeded Denver Nuggets.
The Clips threw it in the tank Sunday, and then played a bunch of scrubs against the Grizz to ensure the more favorable match-up with the Nuggets.
What ticked me off were all the talking heads saying Memphis was trying to tank the game also. Sure, Coach Mike Fratello didn’t play Eddie Jones or Shane Battier their normal minutes and sat down All-Star Pau Gasol so he could rest a bothersome foot injury, but that was it.
Memphis still played to win, and guess what? They won. In fact, they own the best record in the NBA for the month of April. They went 8-1 to finish the regular season, knowing full well that if they did, they would get stuck in the crummy fifth spot.
They also finished with 49 wins, just one short of the magical 50-win plateau. A quick check of their schedule reveals that of their 33 losses, 12 came by five points or less. And they are also ranked seventh in the league’s power rankings.
So why all the idiotic claims that they were trying to tank? The team and coaching staff wanted to enter the playoffs with a winning streak, something they were unable to do the previous two seasons.
If they were trying to coast into the playoffs, would they have fought to double overtime to gain a (seemingly) meaningless win over the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night?
For the last three seasons, the Grizzlies have been about one thing: winning. All that is left is securing that elusive first playoff win.
That they’re even in the playoffs comes as a surprise. Most preseason analysts and soothsayers predicted that Memphis wouldn’t even finish in the top 10 of the West.
A lot of those prognostications were made in light of the trade that brought Damon Stoudemire, Eddie Jones, and Bobby Jackson to town last summer.
Count me among the idiots (don’t you always?) that thought the Grizzlies would be worse off.
Here’s a direct quote from a column I vomited right after the trade: “The Grizzlies aren’t any better than when they were swept out of the playoffs for a record second straight season last May. In fact, they’re worse”.
At least I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong. And boy was I wrong.
The trade paid off (even though Stoudemire went down with an early season knee injury) and the Grizz are now poised to take down Dirk and the Mavs.
The Grizzlies’ first home game in the playoffs will be next Wednesday. For those of you who haven’t experienced the NBA playoffs live, or seen the Grizzlies in the fantastic FedEx Forum, I recommend taking that short drive to Memphis. It’s an experience that you won’t forget, and maybe it will lead you to adopt the only professional sports team within miles of Arkansas. (I’m not even considering the Cardinals, so no angry e-mails reminding me please.)
Most of you are probably sick of reading about the Grizzlies, so I’ll make you a promise. I’ll only write about them again if they win a playoff game, I attend a game, when the season ends, or Pau Gasol shaves his beard.
The NBA Playoffs = FANtastic!
(Mike Gaines is the sports editor of The Sun-Times. His columns, which frequently detail his fascination with all things Memphis, appear each Wednesday and Friday to the delight of his four loyal readers.)