OKLAHOMA CITY – They know how the outside world will view them, as the annoying little brother, the other guys.
The Lakers vs. Mavs will have Kobe vs. Dirk, a pair of individual virtuosos and offensive machines who can melt scoreboards with their point production, not to mention Phil Jackson vs. Mark Cuban, who’ve both been known to intentionally start fires.
The Bulls vs. Hawks will have the continued ascension – and possibly the official coronation – of Derrick Rose into the realm of the elite as the youngest MVP in history and youngest player ever to make the entire horde of TV analysts run out of adjectives.
The Heat vs. Celtics will, of course, have enough breathless conversation to suck the air right out of the room.
Then there’s Grizzlies vs. Thunder. Oh yeah, them. No. 4 vs. No. 8 in the Western Conference, a matchup between two of the smallest markets in the NBA who’ll be lucky if anyone even notices they’re playing.
That is, until the ball goes up. Don’t make the mistake of grabbing the remote and changing the channel.
“I hope that people appreciate teams that play hard and play well together,” said the Grizzlies’ Shane Battier. “We may not have a whole lot of marquee names. But both Oklahoma and our team play very well together, play hard, play the right way. If you’re a basketball fan you should enjoy this series.”
And the Grizzlies don’t believe their little fantasy ride has to end now after their upset of the No. 1 seeded Spurs. They know the Thunder will be more rested, more prepared and at home. The Grizzlies know that they’ve got to flush the celebration from their system quickly and be ready for a new challenge just 36 hours after walking out of their joyous home locker room.
“It’s a quick turnaround, for sure,” said Tony Allen. “But I believe we have the kind of guys on this team who know that this isn’t enough. We came into this season with a goal of making the playoffs and we did that. Now that we’re here, we believe we’re good enough to line up with anybody.”
Neither are the Thunder just happy to have won their first playoff series since moving to Oklahoma City.
“Knowing our guys the way I know them, they’re not satisfied,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “They’re not just satisfied with getting to the next round. We want to keep playing good basketball. We want to make every game consistent with a good effort and give ourselves a chance to win.”
After spending the first three years of his NBA career watching the playoffs from his sofa at home, Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley is ready for the next step.
“I’m overjoyed, but we’re not done,” Conley said. “We understand that there’s another tough team in front of us. They can score in bunches and score very quickly and now they’re a good defensive team with Kendrick Perkins down low. But if we play our game over the whole series, we’ll be fine.”
The Grizzlies even believe the quick turnaround could work to their advantage.
“They may have some rust from sitting around and we’re in a groove,” Battier said. “We’re playing well. Maybe we go out there and see if we can sneak one again in Game 1, like we did in San Antonio. We’re gonna be tired, no question. We’re probably not gonna know them as well as they know us. But we’ll take our shot. We’re playing well and we feel that we can compete with anyone.
“We were playing with house money going into the playoffs. We knew that. But this is a good team. We know that when we play our game, play together, we’re a very good team. Don’t let the seed fool you. We can compete with anybody in this league. And I think the Thunder feel the same way.”
It will be the rising All-Stars of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook vs. the bruising blue collar work of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
It won’t have the glamour of L.A. vs. Dallas, the blooming Rose of Chicago vs. Atlanta or the glitz and celebrity appeal of Miami vs. Boston.
But it would be a mistake to think of it as “just” Oklahoma City vs. Memphis.
Small markets, but big game.