May 13, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley (11) during the post game interview of game four of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder at FedEx Forum. Memphis Grizzlies defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder 103-97, and lead in the series 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

What Star Wars Taught Us About The Grizzlies' Rise

Game 4 was weird a little bit wasn’t it? I can’t speak for everyone, but even as Kevin Durant put the Thunder up 17 points in the second quarter, I still felt like the Grizzlies were alright. If they could shave it to under 10 points before halftime, they’d be within striking distance against a team that has two legitimate scorers and a bunch of other dudes.

They got it all the way down to 8. Memphis tied it going into the 4th quarter. While they had to go to overtime, it almost felt like a formality even if the game very much hung in the balance.

This was nothing new either. I felt like the Grizzlies controlled the action most of the way in game 1 too, except they didn’t close that game out.

Granted, this already-tight series would have been even more tight with Russell Westbrook in the lineup. Or would it? The Grizzlies love to play up and down to competition and while Westbrook is an awesome player, he would have forced Memphis to play well or go home early. It’s that simple.

This wild ride that the Grizzlies are on has left them just one win away from the Western Conference Finals. That would put them just four additional wins away from the NBA Finals. THE MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES!!! IN THE NBA FINALS!!! They were the worst team in basketball as recently as 2007 and made two more lottery picks after that. None of the lottery picks that they made in 2008, 2009 or 2010 are still on the team.

The franchise owned the lowest winning percentage in NBA history until just three short years ago (and remains the third lowest behind the Bobcats and Clippers.)

If the 2011-2013 playoffs were a movie franchise, it would have to be the three original Star Wars movies.

In 2011, the Grizzlies had the feel-good playoff run without their leading scorer Rudy Gay and all signs pointed to a brighter future. In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker thought he would always live on Tatooine until he found out that Obi-Wan Kenobi would train him and teach him the ways of the Force.

Even though the Grizzlies lost in the second round of the playoffs, they did it as an 8 seed and had plenty of momentum going into the 2011-2012 season. In A New Hope, although the war raged on, the movie ended with Luke blowing up the original Death Star. This scenario really works if you regard Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich as Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin.

In 2012, the Grizzlies set the franchise record for winning percentage and seemed like they had started to peak at the right time heading into the playoffs. They even had home-court advantage in the first round, against the perpetually putrid Los Angeles Clippers no less. Beating the Clippers would likely set up a second round showdown with the very team they have vanquished in the 2011 first round, the Spurs.

Instead, the Grizzlies lost in the first round. Making matters even worse, they lost a game 7 at home where home teams win games like that over 80% of the time all-time in the NBA.

Well, remember The Empire Strikes Back? Luke begins training with Yoda on Dagobah and just when you think he’s ready to bring The Empire down, he leaves (against Yoda’s wishes no less) and into a battle against Darth Vader. Skywalker wasn’t ready for the big stage and got his hand cut off as his pal Han Solo was carried out in carbonate.

Yes, losing a game 7 at home is as bad, if not worse, than losing a hand and having your best mate carried off for a gangster like Jabba The Hutt to do what he wants with you.

If you’ve seen the first two movies referenced here, I”m going to bet that you’ve seen Return of the Jedi. If you haven’t, the movie ends with Luke, Han, Lando Calrissian and the whole crew toppling The Empire on Endor. The movie ends with a huge celebration all across the galaxy as people are overjoyed that Vader’s Empire had finally been brought to a merciful end.

Obviously, if the Grizzlies win the World Championship this year then the Return of the Jedi parallel hits as close to home as any comparison I could make. I’d say if they even make the Finals it would be the same. Winning a super competitive Western Conference and losing in six games to the Miami Heat who look like one of the greatest teams of all-time would be quite the accomplishment.

Not only would that be a great season by anyone’s standards, but it would also prove that basketball in a small market can work. One of the bigger sticking points of the last Collective Bargaining Agreement was how to keep teams from small markets competitive. In the past few years, we’ve seen bona fide super stars flee smaller markets for the greener pastures of the big stage playing for some of the biggest, most famous teams in the entire NBA.

LeBron left Cleveland, Chris Bosh left Toronto, Dwight Howard left Orlando, Deron Williams left Utah, Chris Paul left New Orleans, Carmelo left Denver. They all ended up in huge cities playing for contenders almost overnight.

The thinking in NBA circles was that these guys didn’t get the exposure that they’d like in these small cities. The money was the same and even better had they stayed put, but these competitive guys craved the spotlight. What is a small market team to do? They can either trade a perennial All-Star and rebuild for two or three years or they could hold onto said All-Star, watch walk and leave them with nothing and rebuild for two or three years. It’s a lose-lose scenario and it was happening every year.

Don’t get me wrong, the Grizzlies have been as lucky as any team has (maybe ever) with personnel decisions for the past few years. Their guide to shaping a contender has been unorthodox at best… But here they are. Just because nobody has ever done it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

Consider that Zach Randolph was on the Clippers who were just dying to dump his salary anywhere they could send him. The Grizzlies sent the immortal Quentin Richardson to Los Angeles for Randolph and the rest is history. Richardson was pretty much washed up at the time and has been irrelevant since the trade. Randolph has become a franchise cornerstone in Memphis.

Marc Gasol was traded for his own freaking brother and joined a real rebuilding project from 2008-2010. He’s gotten better every year and just recently won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Mike Conley is the senior member of these Grizzlies after being taken with the 4th pick in the 2007 NBA Draft and while he’s still a very much up-and-down joyride most of the time, the Grizzlies probably lucked out by NOT winning the Draft Lottery that year as they would have likely taken Greg Oden rather than Texas scorer Kevin Durant. There’s a what-if for you.

Tony Allen signed a contract three days after LeBron’s infamous Decision during the Summer of 2010. Literally anyone with cap space or an exception could have jumped in to sign him, but the Grizzlies were the only team to pull the trigger. What if he wanted to return to Boston or ended up in New York or Chicago? Do the Grizzlies ever take off without The Grindfather? It’s possible, yes. Is it likely? I don’t know.

You need luck with injuries as well. By my count, the last four World Champions have been decided by injuries going back to the 2010 Finals when Kendrick Perkins was lost for game 7 against the Lakers and Boston got dominated on the glass. Perkins has never had a great offensive game, but the one thing he does bring is rebounding. With Perkins in the lineup, Boston could have won in 2010.

In 2011, the Grizzlies lost Rudy Gay for the season in February and he was just the team’s leading scorer at the time. Again, I’m not sure if the Grizzlies could have won in 2011 or not, but Gay’s absence didn’t help.

In 2012, the Chicago Bulls had just wrapped up the top overall seed in the NBA for a second straight season when Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the Bulls’ first playoff game against the Philadelphia 7ers. He played only one full playoff game and the Bulls lost to Philly in the first round. Miami went on to beat Oklahoma City for the title.

Now this year, the Thunder are coping with the loss of Russell Westbrook for the playoffs, the Lakers were sunk by Kobe Bryant’s Achilles injury, the Bulls are still waiting on Rose and Boston felt like it had one last run in them until Rajon Rondo’s own ACL injury. You mean to tell me that one of those teams couldn’t have won this year with their star healthy and in uniform? Miami is great, but that’s an awfully clear path to glory for them as well.

Four years in a row, a major injury has sidelined at least one potential contender. Luck is most definitely a skill in today’s NBA. So when you tune into game 5 on Wednesday night and it seems like it wasn’t that long ago that 4,000 people went to the Forum any given night, you’re right. If you can’t remember having a Grizzlies-centric discussion with anyone before 2011, I don’t doubt it.

This team has come a long way since Pau Gasol and Hubie Brown were getting killed on the floor of The Pyramid and even since random guys like Hakim Warrick and Terrence Kinsey were playing big roles on bad teams in the early days of The Grindhouse. These are exciting times for the Grizzlies and their fans both new and old, but remember that all good things must come to an end as well. However this season ends up, remember to enjoy it because sometimes the journey is more fun than the destination.

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Tags: Lionel Hollins Marc Gasol Memphis Grizzlies Mike Conley Jr. NBA News Rudy Gay Tony Allen Western Conference Zach Randolph

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