MEMPHIS -- Before and after the Memphis Grizzlies’ season-ending loss Sunday, injured point guard Mike Conley was the big story. In between, there was a drama-free, series-clinching game, a 116-95 Spurs win that looked like so many San Antonio clinchers from the past two decades. Yet, if you think the game was an afterthought, you weren’t around afterward.
Sunday’s lost cause exemplified why national logic might not apply to the Grizzlies’ local perspective. Simply put, this is a tightly knit basketball culture, one that encompasses the constantly evolving roster, the coaching staff and the collegiate-like fans who refused to leave even after the final buzzer sounded after Game 4, ending a season that really was ruined several months ago by Marc Gasol’s foot injury.
“In my 15 years, I never -- especially playoffs or going into the postseason -- have [dealt with] all these injuries,” forward Zach Randolph said, noting this was his most emotionally trying season.
If you believe Conley is going to be lured away from his only NBA home, then you might also believe Sunday’s game served as a swan song for the Grindhouse era. After all, Memphis would be unlikely to attract a free agent comparable to Conley. Randolph, Matt Barnes and Tony Allen are in their mid-30s. Vince Carter is pushing 40. And Gasol’s injury casts at least some doubt that he’ll be the same franchise center he was before ending up on crutches.
But the end-of-an-era stuff applies only if you really believe Conley is leaving. He didn’t sound like it during his Q&A. Sure, in the moment, players often say what they think they’re supposed to say. They also usually leave themselves some wiggle room; Conley didn't. If your cynical mind suggests he was just blowing smoke, don’t forget what he was doing on that podium: accepting a sportsmanship award.
When asked if he sees himself as a part of Memphis’ future, Conley said, “I have never said anything different. But this summer will definitely be a fun one. Free agency is new for me, so we will see how it goes.”
Afterward, Conley watched in street clothes as his teammates, many of them not with the team when the season began, helped carry on the style of play that he was instrumental in establishing.
“We are all invested in each other and we are invested in the city,” Conley said. “That’s the toughest part. A lot of people are switching teams, but we’ve been together for so long that we are like a family.”
As for Game 4 itself, the Grizzlies were aggressive on both ends during the first half -- led by Lance Stephenson. Attacking the paint repeatedly, Stephenson scored 14 of his 26 points by the break. However, Memphis missed several shots at the basket against the taller Spurs, who led by two at halftime. That came back to bite Memphis a little later.
“[San Antonio] is one of the best teams and best coaches,” Randolph said. “They’re like a machine.”
The result was no surprise given Memphis' well-documented injury problems. A quick recap: Conley missed the entire series, as did Gasol, its franchise center. The Grizzlies cycled through 28 players this season, a record for a playoff team. Of the 12 players used by Dave Joerger on opening night back in October, just four played on Sunday. Nothing went smoothly, even in the last game, when a power surge in the Memphis area dimmed the lights at the arena and delayed the proceedings for several minutes.
It’s been a slog, and that’s what made the last few minutes of another hum-drum Spurs blowout all the more remarkable. As Spurs coach Gregg Popovich emptied his bench, Joerger started to do the same. Only one problem: Barnes and Carter wouldn’t come off the floor.
“I hope you guys took notice of what happened in the last three minutes of this game,” Joerger said, growing emotional. “Matt and Vince, they wanted to finish the game. That’s what Grizzlies basketball is about. Those guys are pros, and for what we’ve been through, I would do anything for those guys.”
The tears flowed for Joerger during the remainder of his statement, after which he thanked the media and left the podium without taking any questions. After 86 games and 28 players, it all was catching up with him.
“We just wanted to go down swinging,” Carter said. “Set an example for the younger guys.”
Memphis won a lot of admirers in the process of getting swept. With their primary offensive forces wearing walking boots, the Grizzlies just didn't have the playmakers you need to challenge a team as deep and experienced as the Spurs.
“Dave and his staff and those players deserve a lot of credit,” Popovich said. “It’s not just false praise. They really do because it wasn’t a fair fight. But they didn’t care.”
With the 2015-16 season in the books, Memphis' front office will now step back and consider the bigger picture.
“It’s not as bad as it may seem,” Conley said. “I mean, we are missing seven or eight guys and still had a chance to win Game 3 against one of the better teams in history.
“We might have a different team with a lot of different faces, but with the core group of guys we have instilled here, and with Marc coming back healthy, we definitely have a chance to continue in this window to be successful.”
Perhaps realizing the organization is at a fork in the road, the fans stayed for several minutes to cheer after the game was over. A couple of players stuck around as well, waving to their faithful in appreciation. And Carter was the last one to leave. He says he plans to play another season, but at his age, you can’t take anything for granted.
“When you get older, you savor the moments, regardless,” Carter said. He was speaking about his own career, but depending on how the offseason goes, he might as well have been talking about this era of Grizzlies basketball.