- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
SUNDAY, MAY 5
Game 1, Oklahoma City
The alarm clock buzzed at 8:15 a.m., painfully early by NBA standards, in Quincy Pondexter's room on the ninth floor of the Skirvin Hilton Hotel. Pondexter could feel the ache in his legs of an 82-game season followed by a six-game first-round playoff series, but the dawn of the Western Conference semifinals proved a powerful elixir. I've dreamed about this my whole life, Pondexter told himself. There's no pain. The 25-year-old reserve swingman for the Grizzlies slipped on a gray sweater, khaki pants, navy canvas shoes and a beaded gold necklace. A gold Jesus pendant hung from the chain. Pondexter maintains many superstitions—he won't even cut the skinny piece of plastic connecting a price tag to a new pair of sneakers—and the Jesus head is one of his charms.
Memphis had ousted the Clippers two days earlier, then flew to Oklahoma City on Saturday and braced for the Game 1 tip-off at noon on Sunday. The Grizzlies gathered for breakfast on the 14th floor in the Venetian Room, under its etched ceilings and crystal chandeliers. Pondexter dug into a plate of eggs and bacon, resisting his preference for pancakes and French toast. Memphis had faced the Thunder 18 times over the past three years, including seven in the 2011 Western semis, but never without OKC point guard Russell Westbrook, who would be sidelined with a torn right meniscus. At the front of the room a television played footage of their March 20 game, but just the 12 minutes Westbrook sat on the bench. That sliver of tape offered the only clues into how the Thunder would play without Westbrook. "They're totally different," Pondexter observed.
Assistant coach Henry Bibby ate his unorthodox morning fare—salmon and potatoes—at a table with the Grizzlies' guards. Given the 36-hour turnaround between series and the overhaul of the Oklahoma City backcourt, Bibby admitted there was no way his charges could be fully prepared. Reggie Jackson, Kevin Durant and Derek Fisher would handle the ball, but when and in what lineups remained uncertain. Bibby, who won three national championships as a point guard at UCLA in the early 1970s, copped a line from his former coach John Wooden: "It can't be about what they do. It has to be about what we do."
Memphis swingman Tony Allen arrived at Chesapeake Energy Arena in a red hooded sweatshirt pulled taut over his head, muttering the chorus to a song by the rapper Future: "Who you think you is? Who you think you is?" He tore open an energy bar with his teeth. In the locker room Pondexter did push-ups with an excitable Memphis businessman, and power forward Zach Randolph reviewed Floyd Mayweather's battering of Robert Guerrero, which the team watched in a private dining room the night before.
The Grizzlies are heavyweights, not welter, an antidote to the rest of the go-go Western Conference and a throwback to the days when large men stood on the block with their backs to the basket. They attempt the fewest three-pointers in the NBA and play at the second-slowest pace, lobbing passes inside to Randolph and center Marc Gasol, 260-pound bulls with the footwork of ballerinas and the touch of locksmiths. "I take the worst beating in the league," Randolph says. "But people tell me I give it out, too."
Memphis is a pain to play against, and not just because its tight-fisted defense allows the fewest points in the NBA. When the Oklahoma City public-address system bellowed, "We ask that you refrain from any disruptive behavior—such as fighting," it seemed to be directing the warning at Randolph, who nearly brawled with Thunder center Kendrick Perkins early this season. "I don't bluff," Randolph crowed afterward, spawning a slogan that now adorns gold towels in Memphis, the Bluff City. In the spirit of the PSA, Randolph gave Perkins a peaceful fist bump at tip-off.
The Grizzlies momentarily forgot, as Future might say, who they is. They jacked up 19 threes. They lost the battle of the boards. They allowed Durant to score 35 points, but more galling, sixth man Kevin Martin chipped in 25. Allen, the NBA's premier perimeter defender, was benched for Pondexter. A bit player in New Orleans, Pondexter was traded to Memphis two years ago, and he brings range the Grizzlies lack. He erupted for 13 points, including three threes, one a double-clutch half-court heave to end the third quarter. Memphis led by three in the final minute but wasted three possessions, while Durant torched forward Tayshaun Prince for two jumpers. With 1.6 seconds left Memphis trailed by three, and Pondexter headed to the line for three free throws. He needed them all.
Loud City, as the Oklahoma City crowd calls itself, rose in their matching blue T-shirts. "It was deafening," Pondexter said. He focused on the mechanics of his stroke: bending his knees, lifting his elbow, snapping his wrist. He let the first one fly. The ball bounced off the back of the rim.