The No. 3 seed would've been nice, but when the 4-5 matchup against the Clippers came into focus, the Grizzlies were pleased -- not because it would be easy, but because it could be redemptive.
They wouldn't admit to it publicly, but the Grizzlies never shook off last year's devastating series loss to the Clippers, and it's been stuck in their craw since last May. The series was theirs. They outscored the Clippers over seven games and outplayed them possession-for-possession. In Memphis' tortured memory of the series, the basketball gods turned Nick Young into Reggie Miller, graced Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin with supernatural powers, and a Memphis team that specialized in game management lost all power of control.
Fans love the inexplicable, but this is the stuff that keeps coaches and players up at night, and for the past 12 months, there's been no rest in Memphis.
Until Friday night.
With a 118-105 technical knockout of the Clippers in Game 6 on Friday night, the Grizzlies exorcised the nightmare of a year ago and advanced to the Western conference semifinals for the second time in three seasons.
"Those guys [the Clippers] got away last year," Grizzlies guard Tony Allen said. "Arguably, had we won that first game, I think we would've gotten out of that series. Considering it was a lockout season, we probably could've run through a couple of other teams. For the most part, redemption is really big today."
The Grizzlies drilled their share of big shots against a scrambling, off-balanced Clippers defense. But the game's defining moment occurred on the floor -- literally on the floor -- when the 14-day wrestling match between Randolph and Clippers forward Blake Griffin culminated with Randolph pinning Griffin with a 3-count after the two big men got tangled and fell to the floor in the third quarter.
"I don't even know what happened," Randolph said. "I was going down and he was pulling me down. I was just trying to brace myself. I really don't know."
Randolph smiled through his sparse account of the incident, and Z-Bo's expression was pure Memphis Grizzlies -- wily, fleshy and coy. A big ol' "Who, me?!" for the world.
The Grizzlies led 74-59 at the time of the fracas, and though the Clippers trimmed the deficit to four points early in the fourth quarter, Los Angeles could never mount a coherent, sustainable defense. The game was frenetic and disorderly, much like last year's Game 7. Memphis coach Lionel Hollins called it a "school-yard game." Joey Crawford's officiating crew whistled the teams for a combined 59 personal fouls and seven technical fouls and ejected Randolph and Clippers guard Chris Paul.
Debate over the officiating will certainly dominate the chatter, but the Clippers' guerrilla defense simply gave up more ground than it claimed. With Griffin limited and coming off the bench, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro threw a wide and sometimes bizarre assortment of lineups and strategies at Memphis.
"[The Clippers] came out and threw everything at us," Hollins said. "They played small. They played smaller. They pressed. They zoned. They gave hard fouls."
In the end, the Clippers couldn't find a defensive formula that worked, despite a healthy offensive output led by forward Matt Barnes, who scored 30 points while claiming the majority of the minutes at the power forward spot. Those smaller lineups of the Clips harassed Memphis' big men with double-teams from the top of the floor and effectively contained Marc Gasol (who finished with only 10 points on eight field goal attempts and two foul shots), but ultimately found themselves scrambling and, too often, hacking.
Per usual, defensive maven Allen summed up the X's and O's best:
"When you've got a guy like Zach Randolph who can pound it inside, and a defense doesn't have an answer for that, it's pressure on the defense. Now you have to try other things. Zones, traps, whatever you can come up with. The kitchen sink. But Coach Hollins has enough in his playbook to respond to that."
The Grizzlies aren't a prolific offensive team, and probably won't be until they enlist a couple of consistent perimeter shooters, but they're resourceful. So when the Clippers went "kitchen sink," sending extra bodies from various spots on the floor, the Grizzlies exploited that space.
For instance, twice in the fourth quarter, the Clippers sagged off Grizzlies guard Mike Conley to help inside. The ball quickly found its way to Conley for a couple of big 3-pointers. The Grizzlies quickly recognized that the Clippers were sending double-teams at Randolph, so Z-Bo posted deeper and went to work early before the help could arrive. And when the Clippers converged on Gasol in the middle or Conley penetrating, Allen would sneak behind the defense. The Grizzlies' defensive specialist, who was left unaccounted for by the Clippers' aggressive schemes, became an offensive catalyst. He scored 19 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had six assists.
"I love it," Gasol said. "[Allen] cheats a little bit. He finds his spot. He waits under the basket and gets his buckets."
How very Memphian of Allen, lurking beneath the action and turning garbage into profit. It's been that way all season for the Grizzlies who, despite playing in obscurity in the mid-South, have had a tumultuous season that could fill New York tabloids.
A change of management midseason followed with the trade of Rudy Gay and key reserves Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington. The moves drove Hollins to public despondency, and a normally harmonious Grizzlies camp became fractured. Randolph chirped about an offense that put him in more pick-and-rolls, while Conley and Gasol adjusted to an offense that required more scoring from them.
But on a Friday night in February, Hollins told the media the hand-wringing was over. He might find management's philosophies a bit inscrutable, but there was basketball to be played. After Hollins' pronouncement that it was time to move on, the Grizzlies ripped off 14 wins in 15 games.
The coaching staff sold Randolph on the idea that he'd see the ball just as much out of the pick-and-roll and now had more defensive help with Tayshaun Prince at small forward. With Gay in Toronto, Conley had one fewer mouth to feed and blossomed. Gasol is still most comfortable as a facilitator but started moving low. Whereas Gay needed the ball on the wing to do his thing, Prince was more than happy to feed the bigs in the post, and could also spell Conley as a primary handler. And the offense, once ranked in the 20s in overall efficiency, began to pick up steam.
All these revelations were realized in full against the Clippers, as the Grizzlies expelled the demons of 2012. An opportunity awaits in Oklahoma City, where a Thunder team is grappling for an identity without an injured Russell Westbrook. The Grizzlies have no such worries. They're intimately familiar with their strengths and shortcomings. And there's nothing more dangerous in the postseason than a team that knows who it is.