Philadelphia, PA – When the Memphis Grizzlies continue their unheralded postseason journey in the Western Conference Finals, they'll be facing a bear of a task in the San Antonio Spurs.
The Grizzlies, though, will be ready to make their case as legitimate title contenders.
But take a minute to remember the Grizzlies' NBA inception in the late 1990s as a franchise based in Vancouver. As if people in the mainland of British Columbia cared about professional basketball, which began in the 1995-96 season. Bill Clinton was the U.S. president then and the Dallas Cowboys won their fifth and most recent Super Bowl.
"Apollo 13" and "Toy Story" took over the box offices, stamps were 32 cents and gasoline was under two dollars ($1.35).
It was also a few years before the powers that be wisely decided to move the Grizzlies to the states and take up residence in Memphis, Tenn., a city which embraces hoops a bit more than hockey-laden Vancouver. It was a rough couple of seasons in the Volunteer State for the Grizzlies, but they started to turn heads with three straight playoff appearances from 2003-04 to 2005-06.
The Grizzlies endured another playoff-less stretch over the next four seasons until finally becoming a household name among NBA enthusiasts. In the 2010-11 Western Conference quarterfinals, the Grizzlies disposed of their upcoming playoff opponent, the Spurs, in six games and bowed out in seven games to Oklahoma City in the semifinals.
That series left an impression on the Grizzlies. They wanted to prove they were worthy of being mentioned as an elite Western squad because, as all NBA fans know, that conference has the more talented teams. Unfortunately, their run to the postseason a year ago was cut short by the Los Angeles Clippers in the opening round, losing in seven games.
As a fifth seed in the 2012-13 playoffs, the Grizzlies gritted their teeth and exacted revenge on the Clippers by taking them out in six games. They shocked many in the semis by eliminating the favored Thunder, who didn't have Russell Westbrook, which made it slightly easier for the athletic Grizzlies to move on in five games. The Grizz did a good job of preventing Kevin Durant from making it a one-man show, too, and are in the conference finals for the first time.
"I just like the fact that my teammates, my bigs, Tay (Tayshaun Prince), just keeping fresh bodies on him (Durant). Everybody had their antenna's up on him," Grizzlies defensive stalwart Tony Allen said. "We knew he had to carry a big load without Westbrook. It shows what Westbrook's worth is. Without him, I just thought they were like a wounded dog and we had to kick him while he was down. The more we stay together and play together, the sky's the limit."
Memphis is a mean bunch.
The Grizzlies play tough, physical defense, have big, long bodies and a point guard who is finding his niche at the right time. Mike Conley averaged 17.3 points per game against the Clippers, then posted an 18-point average in the Oklahoma City series. Conley has at least five assists in 10 of the 11 playoff games and distributes the ball evenly. Having bigs in Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Prince has to make his job that much easier.
Prince has won a championship before with Detroit and his veteran leadership and experience were needed when the Grizzlies acquired him in a deal that saw fan favorite and leading scorer Rudy Gay head to Toronto in a three-team deal.
After Wednesday's series-clinching win over the Thunder, Conley talked about the winding road the Grizzlies have traveled to this point.
"We were winning 20 games a year just four of five seasons ago," Conley said. "Management did a great job getting guys in; got Zach here, got Tony here. Now we have Tayshaun, we got a new group. We've worked every day, kinda floated under the radar and now we're here (West Finals)."
It's like the verse from hip hop star Drake's hit "Started from the Bottom":
"Started from the bottom now we're here"
"Started from the bottom now my whole team here"
Here, of course, is the postseason. Prince reflected back to his days with the Pistons and how nobody cared who got the glory because winning was most important. The Pistons, who won the title in 2004, had Prince, Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace and played unselfish basketball. It was all about moving on to the next one for that team, and Prince sees similar traits with Memphis.
Can Memphis' solidarity overtake a Spurs team that is compared to a wise old owl? The Spurs are long in the tooth with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but age hasn't been an issue. Not even a little bit. San Antonio still has gas left in the tank and will make this series tough on Memphis.
The Spurs are almost unstoppable at home, which is why this series will go at least six games. Memphis may have trouble taking it to a seventh game, so it will have do the impossible by stealing one in the Alamo City.
Memphis and San Antonio will ram horns Sunday in Game 1. That's when the Grizzlies can prove they're ready to take it to the next level.