First, let’s check something: did the Lakers get swept? OK, good. Just making sure. Who, then, are the Mavs going to face in the Western Conference Finals? There isn’t a website for that — not one I can share with you, at any rate [I’ve already said too much] — so let’s look at both possible teams: the Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
(Fair warning: there are a lot of words after this point. If you don’t have time, just look at this for a moment.)
Oklahoma City Thunder: If you’re just paying attention to basketball for the first time in four years, the Thunder are led by Kevin Durant, aka Durantula, aka possessor of the second-most unblockable jump shot (after Dirk Nowitzki, of course). He led the league in scoring last year, and though he averaged fewer points, did so again this year. He’s close to 7-feet tall (ignore whatever he’s listed at; JJ Barea is listed at 6 feet) and is all limbs and heart. And brains: he has perfected an incredibly savvy (and irritating) move where he essentially forces his defender to foul him. This “rip” move uses the defender’s arms against him, forcing the defender to rely almost entirely on positioning and, well, I’ve probably already gotten too inside for you, person who needs Kevin Durant described to them. ANYWAY. He’s awesome and by all accounts nice and humble and seems like a guy it would be fun to play videogames with, which is disappointing to me, as I don’t like playing videogames and thus can’t even daydream of that probably exceedingly remote possibility.
The Thunder were expected to reach this level this year, after a coming-out party last year when they won 50 games and gave the Lakers — who, remember, won the title — everything they could handle. They got off to a bit of a slow start this year, Durant didn’t quite make the sizable leap his World Championships performance indicated, at least one person on the team (PG Russell Westbrook, who is athletically ridiculous and sometimes just ridiculous) is not positive Durant is the best player, and I’m still upset “Chewie” is not Serge Ibaka’s registered nickname, but everything is basically going to plan.
Like the Mavericks, they lost a big fourth-quarter lead this postseason (16 points in Game 3 of the Memphis series); unlike the Mavs, they aren’t the sort of vet-laden squad that could use that as a wakeup call or rallying point. But their youth serves them well the longer the series goes and, also, they are from Oklahoma. Oklahomans are hardy, creative, and — except for my co-workers Krista Nightengale and Ryan Conner — a notoriously shifty bunch. Like carnies. In other words: dangerous, on a basketball court, and elsewhere.
Memphis Grizzlies: More than any previous squad, this version of the Grizzlies reflects the city of Memphis, or at least my sort of idealized version of Memphis. It’s all there in shooting guard (only one word of that job description is true) Tony Allen’s catchphrase — “all heart, grit, grind.” They are — and it’s not even close — the gulliest team in these playoffs, the NBA version of the dudes who show up at your lunchtime Y game smelling like menthols (even if you’re pretty sure not a one of them has a membership), hold the court for an hour, and hit on your girlfriend when she meets you outside. (I mean every bit of that as a compliment, because those are the guys I grew up playing with. Not playing like, alas.)
The Grizzlies have: Zach Randolph, who always looks like he just wiped off a Kool-Aid mustache and is a postplay savant despite having the exact same vertical leap as my father; O.J. Mayo, a sixth-man gunner who helped kick off the team’s resurgence by getting beat up by Allen on the team plane after a card game (yes); the only Iranian-born player in center Hamed Haddadi; the only Gasol brother left in the playoffs; and no idea that No. 8 seeds aren’t supposed to do things like this.
They are probably the most intimidating team around, mainly because of that last fact. No one can get into their heads because they don’t worry about the past, or the future. Other teams can get caught looking ahead at the potential treats that await, or looking behind them at their trailing baggage. The Grizzlies do not care about anything except what is right in front of them right now. And that is scary.
Who would I rather see the Mavericks play? Honestly, either one. Each team presents its own problems, each team presents its own advantages. The Mavericks now have the two most important things entering the Western Conference Finals: confidence and rest. Whatever tiny amount of rust or loss of momentum that will happen during this week off will be overwhelmingly offset by the benefits. Mentally, they seem more than ready for the eight wins that remain out there. That was clear from their post-game reaction to the Lakers win, as well as the in-game chill when Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum delivered cheap shots.
And they’re playing their best basketball of the season, making extra passes, setting hella screenz, locking down on defense, and continuing to enjoy the benefits of employing Dirk Nowitzki for 13 seasons. (OK, fine, I guess I waited long enough: I SEE YOU BIG GERMAN!) If you missed out on four seasons of Dirk, well, it’s your loss, but welcome back. (On the other hand, if you gave up last series — coughRichieWhittRandyGallowaycough — we’re done.)
Eight down. Eight more.