The Memphis Grizzlies and the Nashville Predators give Tennessee a taste of post-season success:
A couple of weeks ago I assessed the post-season success or should I say unsuccessfulness of Tennessee’s professional sports franchises. (See: http://www.noomizo.com/index.php/the-tennessee-sports-fan-conundrum-why-cant-tennessees-professional-sports-teams-acheive-post-season-success/) and as always it seems my foot has now been placed firmly in my mouth. The Memphis Grizzlies at the time had never even won a playoff game, and were given the tall task of facing the number one seed of the NBA’s western conference in the San Antonio Spurs. The Nashville Predators hadn’t won a playoff series and were facing arguably the hottest NHL team coming into the playoffs in the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. As much as I credit myself for knowing a thing or two about our local pro teams, little did I and for the most part the state of Tennessee anticipate that we would be treated to a pair of fast-paced and exciting NHL and NBA playoff series victories for both teams.
The Predators got things started as they battled Anaheim in a highly entertaining back and forth battle of up-tempo teams. The series featured everything you want in an NHL series with brutal hits (Martin Erat had four teeth knocked out by Jarkko Ruutu in game 4), spectacular goals (You won’t find a better one than Bobby Ryan’s amazing goal in game 5), suspensions (Ryan for stomping Jonanthon Blum’s foot) and a dramatic come from behind victory overtime thriller in game 5.
The Preds fought for every inch of ice and resembled the hard nosed blue collar team they always have been under Barry Trotz. Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Pekka Rinne, and Mike Fisher all showed at various points why they are so valuable to the team. But it was also the unsung heroes in Jered Smithson with his game-winning shot in OT of game 5 as well as Nick Spaling scoring two goals in the game 6 clincher, detailing the entire team effort. They also stole the hearts of Nashville in the process as the sold out Bridgestone arena was rocking in every game. “Hockeytonk” showed to be alive and well in “Smashville” as fans came out in droves to see their Predators. The local and national media have finally caught on as the media presence at Predator games has nearly tripled. They have given us locals something else to talk about other than the Titans and the NFL lockout labor strife. They have made us proud and proved that hockey can survive in this non-traditional southern market.
The Predators have fought for respect since they arrived in Nashville. They seem to finally be getting there just due as Head Coach Barry Trotz has been nominated for the Jack Adams award for coach of the year, Goalie Pekka Rinne is up for the Vezina trophy for best goalie and defensemen Shea Weber is a finalist for the Norris trophy awarded to the NHL’s best defensemen. As critical as the press has been about Nashville’s hockey team, it seems that things are finally changing for the better. The Predators attendance has steadily increased as the chart below shows. And now with the playoff victory under their belt, the numbers should only get better.
Season Avg. Paid Avg. Comps
2008-09 14,189 852
2009-10 14,155 834
2010-11 15,562 655
The Memphis Grizzlies have come into their own at the right time as they took down perennial playoff power San Antonio Spurs in just six games. The Spurs were the number one seed in the west and Memphis was given little hope of winning a couple of games much less the entire series. The Grizzlies came out in game 1 and showed the Spurs they meant business as they punished San Antonio in the post thanks to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The newly minted “Bruise Brothers” just obliterated the older Spurs team on the inside. San Antonio had no answer for the multi skilled big men as Memphis ran its offense to perfection thru the duo. The Spurs tried everything including small lineups and inserting seldom used rookie Tiago Splitter in favor of undersized and ineffective Dejuan Blair. Memphis also used a stifling perimeter defense featuring perimeter pit-bulls Shane Battier and Tony Allen. One of the surprising and ironic events is how the injury of the Grizzlies most athletic player in Rudy Gay has allowed the paring of Battier and Allen to attack other team’s best wing players. The lethal 3-point shooters of the Spurs were limited to just 29.4% in the series after shooting an NBA best 39.7% during the regular season. Marc Gasol has made the trade of his brother Pau to L.A mentionable in these parts again as he has developed into one of the better center in the league. He averaged 20 points and 16 rebounds against the Spurs
However, maybe the biggest story of the Grizzlies surprising run has to be the emergence of Zack Randolph as their go to clutch performer. Randolph as you remember was the enigmatic head case that made stops in Portland, L.A., and New York before arriving in Memphis. He was a player who reputation had preceded him. He was known for having talent but not the work ethic that was needed to become a consistent star. Randolph is now proving that he has moved past those demons as he carried the Grizzlies past San Antonio averaging 27 points and 11 rebounds for the series. He bullied his way to the hoop and showed a soft leathery jump shot from the outside. He made the game winning 3-pointer in game 3 that stunned the Spurs so much that they never recovered from it (Tim Duncan looked as if his eye-balls were going to pop out).
Credit also has to be given to the Grizzlies coaching and bench play as Head Coach Lionel Hollins has mixed and matched players until he finally settled on a unit featuring hard nosed defenders in Darrell Arthur and Sam Young and balanced it out with skilled offensive players O.J Mayo and Grevis Vasquez. Memphis has taking on the identity of its coach Hollins who was a member of the 1977 and 1978 NBA all-defensive teams. He relishes the opportunity for his team to get out in passing lanes and playing in your face pressure defense. Hollins has been the steady hand that has led Memphis to respectablity. He has taken this team and made it his as he has navigated thru the Allen Iverson debacle and enstilled confidence in Point Guard Mike Conley by giving him the minutes he needed to become a solid leader on the team.
As a result of their attainment both the Grizzlies and the Predators have made this spring much more interesting here in Tennessee. The teams continue their march into history as the Preds now are facing the number one seeded Vancouver Canucks. The Grizzlies are taking on up and coming Oklahoma City, a team featuring one of the best players in the world in Kevin Durant. There are so many similarities in these teams as both face stiff challenges in their quests to bring home championship hardwood that has eluded the volunteer state. They are both hard working blue collar teams that don’t have the name recognition as the big cities teams do. Nashville and Memphis have also proved that they are hungry for more as well, as they have both already taken a victory in their second round series.These two teams have captured the spirit of Tennessee, from the rolling hills and country music of the mid-state to the bar-b-qued filled aroma and fun loving elements of Beale Street of Memphis. These two teams have a chance to go down in Rocky Top lore.