MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Paul McCartney played the FedExForum Sunday night and during one of his several
soliloquies to the sold-out crowd he marveled at the cross-generational audiences that come to hear him play, a phenomenon that transcends time and age to create a seemingly eternal, ethereal world.
Inside the same arena Monday night, another traveling road show continued to manipulate their own timelines of age and accomplishment. The San Antonio Spurs aren’t quite working on a half-century of brilliance like Sir Paul, but in sports years, the Gregg Popovich–Tim Duncan partnership is as apt a comparison as one will find in the modern sports world.
Think about it. When they won their first title in 1999, today’s college freshmen were in kindergarten. Teenagers then now have their own kids wearing Duncan’s No. 21 jersey just as they did. This is as unique as it gets: A transcendent player and a gruff, no-nonsense coach — add a crafty and clever general manager in R.C. Buford who helps to draft Tony Parker late in the first round and Manu Ginobili late in the second — and all these years later it’s the same as it ever was, the Spurs back in the NBA Finals like it was, well, yesterday.
Duncan and Pop will vie for a fifth championship in 15 seasons and a fourth comprised as the Big Three. They finished the job with a 93-86 win for a sweep of the overmatched Memphis Grizzlies in their maiden voyage to the Western Conference finals.
“To get over that hump and get back into the Finals is just an amazing feeling, honestly,” said the 37-year-old Duncan after going for 15 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots. “Nothing’s promised. Teams continue to change. Teams continue to get better every year and we seem to make minimal changes and we continue to play and compete a high level.”
Too high for a Memphis team that is now, having completed a 12th season here, truly attracting a generation of its own basketball fans that cut their teeth with a college team that plays in the same building.
These four straight losses came entirely unsuspectingly after the Grizz took out the Los Angeles Clippers in six and then top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in five. But it can’t diminish the wild success of this group during a drama-filled season, and the 17th consecutive playoff sellout crowd that encouraged their blue-collar club to the final buzzer proved it by standing and loudly cheering them off into the abrupt offseason.
Coach Lionel Hollins, who has molded this team in his own manly image of how basketball should be played — tough, physical, resolute and from the inside out, stood on the floor after all his players had walked off as if to soak it all in. He unfastened the mic he wore for television, handed it to Grizzlies PR director Jason Wallace and slowly headed into the tunnel as the crowd continued to cheer.
Waving yellow rally towels that read “We Don’t Bluff,” they had to be wondering if Hollins was truly walking into the Memphis sunset.
He entered the season in the final year of his contract and an extension never came as new ownership and management took over the operation just as the season was getting under way. They shook up the roster with a couple of trades that included shipping out leading scorer Rudy Gay.
The core of Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Marc Gasol carried the club the rest of the way, securing a franchise-best 56 wins. They caught a break facing OKC without injured All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook and grinded their way to this unprecedented point.
And now it’s up to the new management team, led by CEO Jason Levien, to make the right call on several critical fronts, starting with Hollins, whose contract expires at the end of next month. He will have suitors and likely some — the Nets and Clippers — willing to pay a premium. One member of the Grizzlies’ large, new ownership group acknowledged that Hollins will be a hot commodity for several vacancies in the league, but added “We’ll have first shot.”
Then there’s free agents. At the top of the agenda is the team’s heart-and-soul, the creator of grit-and-grind, Tony Allen. Jerryd Bayless is likely to opt out of his contract. And what will this new group want to do with Randolph, who turns 32 in July, and his remaining $34.3 million owed him over the next two seasons?
If there was any doubt as to where Allen and Randolph hope to be when training camp opens come October all one had to do was look into their bloodshot eyes and hear their cracking voices.
“I bleed blue. This is where I want to be,” Allen said. “I don’t want to cry right now, but you know, it’s just a great season. I love the fight in all my guys.”
Randolph carried the team in the first two rounds, but couldn’t get anything going against the Spurs, who keyed on him with swarming defense every time he touched the ball in the post.
“You never know,” said Randolph, wiping moist eyes. “Just seeing this core, where we went. This is where I want to be, whether I get traded or not. I would like to retire a Grizzly and be here.”
Hollins didn’t want to discuss his future after the game. But before it, he gave a sense of what coaching these players and putting his stamp on this team — a 24-win outfit in 2008-09 when he took over for the fired Marc Iavorani with 39 games left– has meant to him. Randolph said it all starts with Hollins.
“What I’m proud of is that I was blessed to have a group that wanted to win,” Hollins said. “They didn’t know how. They were young and they didn’t know how to work hard because they never had to, and I just tried to show them the way and put them in an environment that they could be successful.
“I’m proud of them because they wanted it and they went and did everything that I pushed them to do. They could have quit as well, but they chose to fight, and they’re reaping the rewards for us right now.”