So my phone pings with a text in the early morning hours of Monday, and instinctively I know this is Memphis Grizzlies assistant coach Barry Hecker, unwinding from his team’s epic playoff performance against the Los Angeles Clippers.
I smile, picturing his satisfaction, knowing that at last check Sunday night the Grizzlies were enjoying a 24-point lead with eight minutes left in the game. After lying in bed for several more minutes, I decide to read the message from the longtime Salt Lake Valley resident, which consists of four mystifying words: "We gave it away."
Wait. What? Memphis lost?
True story: Clippers 99, Grizzlies 98.
If the style and substance of the Jazz’s 15-point loss to San Antonio in Game 1 came straight from the standard NBA playoffs manual, there are enough variables in play to suggest that something out of the ordinary can occur in this series.
Just look at what happened elsewhere during the playoffs’ opening weekend: Orlando held Indiana scoreless in the final four minutes, scoring the game’s last 11 points in an 81-77 road victory. Chicago’s championship hopes were crushed when star guard Derrick Rose injured his knee in the late stages of a win over Philadelphia. And then came Memphis’ monumental collapse — or the Clippers’ comeback, depending on your perspective.
We all know that the better team almost always wins in a best-of-seven series. But the weekend’s events should inspire just enough paranoia among the favorites and encouragement for the underdogs, creating some belief that this Jazz-Spurs series may become intriguing before it’s over.
I know this: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich warmed quickly to the subject of Memphis’ meltdown Monday at the team’s practice facility, playing along to an unusual degree for him.
"Every coach in the league talks about one of the worst blessings you can get is a big lead in the first quarter or the first half, because it’s a 48-minute game," Popovich said. "We all know anything can happen, and it’s happened to all of us. Every team has gone through something like that."
But not quite like this, exactly. Not like leading by 24 with eight minutes left and still being up by 12 with three minutes to play, only to be overtaken by what became a 26-1 run in barely more than seven minutes.
Popovich initially thought I was asking about injuries, responding about how coaches are "paranoid about health." There’s a good reason for that, as illustrated by Rose’s injury, which can be attributed only to the Curse of Carlos Boozer. In a season when Boozer started all 66 games, to the astonishment of those who followed his injury-defined Jazz career, it seemed only natural that some other misfortune would strike the Bulls.
Coaches also are worried about finishing off an opponent and not celebrating too soon. In that sense, Memphis’ grisly ending will become cautionary throughout the NBA — not that San Antonio’s steady nature under Popovich likely would allow such a turn of events.
"That’s one thing about Pop: Pop never gets too high or gets too low," said the Spurs’ Stephen Jackson. "He tries to keep us on an even keel, too. Memphis was so excited, jumping around and everything when they got up 20 points."
The Clippers’ recovery made the Magic’s late surge against Indiana in Game 1 seem like routine stuff, but that comeback was remarkable enough for an Orlando team that’s missing Dwight Howard.
So these NBA playoffs already have proved that nothing’s a foregone conclusion, presumably including the Jazz-Spurs series. This postseason is being framed by unpredictability. The only trouble for the Jazz is that the Magic and Clippers already may have exhausted most of it.
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