By Kyle Reinier Pineda 

As we look back to the previous era of Memphis Grizzlies basketball, an eight seed over one seed upset sparked what would be known as the “Grit N’ Grind” era today. 

2011 was a crazy year for upsets in the NBA. The two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers were swept by the Dallas Mavericks. The Atlanta Hawks dispatched a Dwight Howard led Orlando Magic team. The newly formed big three of the Miami Heat were outclassed by Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals. Out of all this, the first-round Western Conference matchup between the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies is often overlooked in history books. 

This series highlighted two Southwest division rivals with different aspirations heading into the NBA Playoffs. This was a Spurs team that featured its core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili under coach Gregg Popovich. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, were led by Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley under Lionel Hollins. 

Setting the Stage

The Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs split their regular-season matchup two games apiece before their first-round showdown in April. The 2010-11 season was the first winning season of the Grizzlies since 2005-06. The Spurs meanwhile were looking for their fifth title (which they eventually won in 2014) heading into the new decade. 

It should be stated as well that both teams were undermanned heading into the Playoffs. Rudy Gay, who was the leading scorer for the Grizzlies, was out for the season with a dislocated shoulder. Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili sprained his elbow in the Spurs season finale. The Argentinian would miss one game in the series but was very inefficient from the field for the next five games. 

The Grizzlies eventual win over the Spurs in six games would be the first-ever Playoff win for the young franchise. They are only the second team (behind the #WeBelieve Warriors) to defeat a one-seed in a best-of-seven series during the first round. Unlike the 2006-07 Warriors this Grizzlies team was more equipped to pull off an upset—beating the Lakers, Thunder, Heat, and Celtics in the regular season. 

The Start of the Grit N’ Grind Grizzlies

This series was mainly overlooked in the history books because it happened in the first round and a rugged series between these two teams was overshadowed by a Playoff field which showcased more superstars on TV. The Grizzlies opted to roll with a nine-man rotation which included their star players and the leading men of the Grit N’ Grind era in Tony Allen and Shane Battier. Coach Hollins would also field in former Spur Shane Young who pitched in with 9.8 points and three triples a game on 51% shooting to mess up the scouting report. The Grizzlies defense definitely hindered the Spurs offensive gameplan by limiting them to only 43% from the field and 94 points throughout the series (a far cry from the Spurs average of 100 points per game in the regular season). 

The San Antonio Spurs had mismatches all over the floor. While Tim Duncan and Zach Randolph were trading baskets in the post, Tony Parker was often shadowed by defensive stalwarts in Conley and Allen. This left Marc Gasol as another productive big, the Spurs were forced to defend with an aging Antonio McDyess, undersized Matt Bonner, or rookie Tiago Splitter. While the matchups and circumstances were against the Spurs, it’ was hard to bet against a top-seed in the Western Conference with championship experience.

This series was incredibly tight all the way until Game 6. Three games were decided by a single shot, each game was decided by eight points or less except one game, and the prospect of completely changing the 2011 Playoff landscape was a possibility for the Grizzlies. Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley dominated on offense—combining for 50 points across the trio. Tony Allen and Shane Battier putting the trademark aggressive defense for the underdogs to score on easy fast-break points. As the series moved on, the veteran Spurs slowly realized they needed fresh legs and more tools on offense if they were to survive the fast-paced NBA landscape once again.  

Nine Years After

After capping off a 99-91 upset over the top-seeded Spurs at home, the cinderella Grizzlies team faced off with the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder squad. They pushed the Thunder to a Game 7 before falling on the road. The next season, the Grizzlies would set a franchise-best 41-25 before underperforming in the first round against the Clippers. They would match up with the Spurs again in the 2014 Western Conference Finals before getting swept and in 2017 where they lost again.

The Grit N’ Grid era posted an identity for the Memphis area which prided itself with its culture of hard work and grit being an area made up of mostly “blue-collar workers”. While they did not garner the same amount of success as other franchises, this would be Memphis’ first taste of Playoff basketball and would be the foundation for the next era of Grizzlies basketball. After constantly getting bounced early in the Western Conference playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies embarked on a two-year rebuild by trading away key figures of the Grit N’ Grind era. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen would be role players in other teams, Marc Gasol was traded to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in last season’s trade deadline, and Mike Conley’s supermax contract was moved to Utah to usher in the new era. In under two years, the Memphis Grizzlies have rebranded themselves to be one of the most intriguing dark-horses in the 2020 Playoffs. Led by Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Jonas Valencuinas, their front office has made moves in their roster and coaching staff to have one of the fastest and most versatile lineups in the NBA.