MEMPHIS -- The first thing the Memphis Grizzlies want you to understand is that no matter what you might think of their chances against the San Antonio Spurs, they're not here to play Generals to the Spurs' Globetrotters.
“We’re playing to win,” Grizzlies guard Vince Carter said. “It's not playing just to get the series over to appease the rest of the world. We are playing to win basketball games.”
Despite Memphis' two thumping losses in San Antonio to open the series, the Beale Street area near downtown has been abuzz with anticipation in advance of Friday's Game 3. Forget the long odds against a Grizzlies upset -- one fan in a Mike Conley jersey stated that the atmosphere at the FedExForum "is going to be orgasmic." While we can hope for a more competitive game than the ones the Spurs won by a combined 58 points, let's hope it doesn't come to that.
History says it won’t. According to ESPN Stats & Info, 33 times in past postseasons a team has fallen behind 2-0 to an opponent who won at least 65 games during the regular season. San Antonio won 67 games this season and, as you probably guessed, that’s bad news for Memphis: None of those 33 teams came back to win a series.
On Thursday, fans lined up in snaking lines in the lobby of the arena in hopes of scoring free tickets handed out by beloved (and injured) center Marc Gasol, who purchased 500 tickets to give away, as did teammate Conley. You don't have to spend much time in Memphis to realize there is a special bond between the Grizzlies and their fans. That, as much as anything, makes Game 3 a major event in the Mid-South region.
“We've been down (with injuries) for quite a while,” Memphis forward Matt Barnes said. “Fan support has never wavered. If anything, it's improved. As players, we definitely appreciate that.
“We want to come out and put out for the city. Everyone has counted us out, but I think we can come in here and steal a game and make it respectable.”
It's the kind of sentiment that cold-hearted analysts (yes, like the author of this article) tend to brush aside. Especially when it comes to fringe playoff entrants who, in a practical sense, might have been better off in the lottery. After all, a 0.5 percent shot at Ben Simmons might be better odds than some people have given the shorthanded Grizzlies of beating San Antonio four times. Still, as a lot of Sixers fans can surely tell you, it's a lot more fun to root for basketball players in actual games than it is to root for lottery balls.
"It's one of the best (home-court advantages),” Barnes said. “It just gives me chills thinking about it. Coming in here as a competitor in years past, it was deafening.”
Those aforementioned cold analytical hearts are quick to point out the obvious: A revved-up crowd of fanatics at the Grindhouse won't themselves be enough to knock off the dominant Spurs. Some basketball things are going to have to break Memphis' way.
On the court, there hasn't been much in the way of good news for the Grizzlies during the first round. Memphis managed just 74 and 68 points, respectively, during the two games in San Antonio. Those figures are problematic in that the Spurs have scored at least 84 points in all 84 of their games this season. The Grizzlies could hold San Antonio to a season low in points and still lose by three possessions.
So what is an injury-ravaged team to do?
"We just have to figure out to see if we can find a crack,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “They did their job winning the two games at home, and they didn't win by three and six. So we try to make some adjustments and give them some different looks.”
Joerger has fielded a number of questions related to playing more small-ball in an effort shake things loose on the offensive end. The questions are fair under the circumstances, but it's important to realize there is no secret sauce of lineup configuration that is going to unsettle San Antonio. And if there was, the Grizzlies would be an unlikely lot to find it given their paucity of high-level shooters. Yet those inquiries, and the insinuations they carry, have at least some objective basis.
In Game 1, the five-man group of Carter, Tony Allen, Jarell Martin, Xavier Munford and Lance Stephenson outscored San Antonio 13-11 in four minutes of play and shot 6-for-6 from the field in the process. Joerger did not use that group in Game 2. During the last few weeks of the regular season, as Memphis struggled to adapt to the season-ending injuries suffered by Conley and Gasol, such small lineups were often the Grizzlies' most effective groups.
Yet things are never as simple as that, and no coach is going to upend his rotation because of four semi-solid minutes. Small-ball lineups often look better on the stat sheet than they are in reality because they are situational by nature, deployed according to specific matchups and circumstances. Even the Warriors use their vaunted "death lineup" for only limited stretches.
Still, small lineups are a tool. Joerger says every object in the tool shed is an option and he won't shy away from any of them.
“I don't think I got into the NBA or have been able to stay in the NBA by playing it safe,” Joerger said. “If there is something that can be done or would be done, it won't be (avoided) because of fear.”
The small-ball chatter is probably overstated when it comes to the Grizzlies because it's simply not who they are or how the roster is structured even with Gasol out. Zach Randolph is a plodder, but he's also Memphis' top current offensive option. Chris Andersen is the Grizzlies' top available basket protector. Martin and JaMychal Green offer energy and a different look at the frontcourt positions, but they are woefully shy of playoff experience. Even more important, there is the opponent: The Spurs have been too good, for too long, to be rattled by a sudden onslaught of wings and point guards.
"They protect each other really well," Joerger said. “Their on-court IQ is off the charts, too. Obviously they're well-coached.”
Maybe Joerger will throw some different lineups at the Spurs. Maybe he won't. He didn’t go small in Game 2, instead sticking with two big men for virtually the entire game. But the point isn't so much that Joerger must conceive a solution for an unsolvable proof. It's more that every game finds its own rhythm, and Joerger has nothing to lose by trying everything at his disposal to set that rhythm and hope an appropriately bluesy melody emerges and incites the Grindhouse faithful.
Barnes said after Game 2 that Memphis was "bringing spoons to a gunfight." In Game 3, every utensil in the kitchen is in play.
"I think we're going to throw everything at them, man: forks and knives, sharpening knives, can opener, bottle opener, whatever we got,” Barnes said.