- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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SAN ANTONIO -- The difference between these Memphis Grizzlies and those Memphis Grizzlies, who got broomed out of the playoffs in the first round every time we saw them there, is obvious to the only guy who played for them then and now.
Shane Battier calmly splashed the 3-ball in the final minute that prevented another vintage collapse for the franchise record book, wound up staking the Griz to a 1-0 series edge over the 61-win San Antonio Spurs and then patiently sat at his locker explaining what was missing on those Memphis teams of yore.
"One big guy short," Battier said over and over Sunday afternoon, sounding more interested in defending the honor of those three squads that got swept -- teams Battier insists were unfairly "dismissed" -- than reconstructing the glory of his left-wing dagger with 23.9 seconds to go that stunned the Spurs on their floor.
"I really believe that," Battier said. "We were one big guy away from contending."
These Grizzlies are a No. 8 seed who can't quite start tossing around that word yet -- let's see them beat San Antonio three more times, with Manu Ginobili in uniform as opposed to street clothes, before we start assessing Memphis' contention prospects -- but say this much for the new crew from Beale Street: Dependable size is absolutely not any sort of shortcoming.
Battier's storybook 3, O.J. Mayo's three huge triples and Tony Allen's tide-turning, all-over-the-floor presence in the fourth quarter wouldn't have amounted to much if the Grizzlies didn't punish San Antonio inside with their frontcourt tag team of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Even with a perfectly passable 16 points and 13 rebounds, Tim Duncan had to settle for ranking as the third most impactful big man in Game 1 of Spurs-Griz, because Randolph (25 points and 14 boards) and Gasol (24 and nine) were relentless.
The Grizzlies privately believed coming into this matchup that Gasol, in tandem with Randolph's ongoing dominance, could be the X factor that overloads Duncan's nightly burden at nearly 35. Yet they couldn't have dreamed how Day 1 of their long-awaited return to the playoffs would unfold. While Marc's older brother Pau was no-showing in the Los Angeles Lakers' humbling home defeat to short-handed New Orleans, Duncan was forced to admit -- with Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair ineffective and foul-plagued -- that the combo of Randolph and young Gasol had him seriously stretched.
"I gave him a bit of an easy time there, trying to keep half an eye on Zach instead of focusing on Marc," Duncan said. "I need a little more focus in that respect."
Sunday's early signals actually weren't so promising for the visiting upstarts. Griz coach Lionel Hollins is still trying to convince folks that he wasn't intentionally trying to land the Spurs as Memphis' first-round opponent when he gave time off in the season's final two regular-season games to Randolph, Allen and Mike Conley, spending more than half of his pregame press briefing fielding questions on the subject. When it was playfully suggested that there's a movement afoot to change his playing-days nickname from "Train" to "Tank," Hollins didn't sound terribly amused, shooting back: "I'm not lettin' 'em put that one on me."
Word then began to circulate that Charles Barkley had proclaimed on TNT that the Grizzlies "are going to win this series" and that "San Antonio is overrated." The most common reaction to both claims: Barkley had just smooched Memphis with a kiss of death.
The Griz, though, weren't going to be denied any longer, hard as they seemingly tried to give it all away. Up six with 2:47 to play after a rugged rebound and lefty putback by Gasol, Memphis promptly clanked four straight free throws, two each by Gasol and Allen. That enabled Matt Bonner to shoot the Spurs into a 96-94 lead with a couple of Robert Horry-esque 3s from almost the same spot in the center of the floor.
Memphis' deficit swelled to four before another Gasol layup, followed by a stop with a half-minute remaining in regulation that didn't prompt Hollins to call the standard timeout in those situations. He let the Griz go, Conley found Battier free and Memphis would soon be reveling in the unfamiliar pleasure of a series lead.
"Ol' Grandaddy Shane, he was big today," Allen offered.
Then the occasion got off-the-charts big when Battier found out after the game that his pregnant wife Heidi had given birth to their second child.
"Single CRAZIEST day of my life," Batter announced via his Twitter account.
Said Gasol: "It was meant to be. Shane had to hit that shot.
"I know what it means [to the city of Memphis]. We're well aware of how the record was, because you guys reminded us so many times."
Before getting the baby news, Battier tried to downplay the individual significance of the moment. "Every now and then," he joked, "the stars align and you get a storyline for you [media] guys." Yet he eventually acknowledged that it was a "pretty good Hollywood ending" for a Game 1, not only because of the Grizzlies' gruesome playoff history but because of his own struggles since Houston dealt him back to Memphis on trade-deadline day in late February.
Besides missing his family, with Heidi back in Texas, Battier re-entered the Grizzlies' world with trepidation, wary of trying to force-feed leadership on a team that had been surging without him but then also pressing when he got on the floor, feeling pressure to step into the void created by Rudy Gay's season-ending injury and/or serving as the veteran example on a team full of kids.
But Battier didn't flinch when his opportunity came at the AT&T Center, steeling the Griz with that clutch 3 after they had seemingly blown their shot.
"After experiencing the right here and right now," Battier said, "I'm feeling pretty good [about the trade]."
He went on to insist that the Grizz really weren't rattled by blowing that late lead, saying: "Maybe we're young enough to not understand the [magnitude] of the playoffs. Maybe that's the bonus of inexperience."
Too early to say. The Spurs are expected to bring Ginobili back for Game 2 -- after two full days of rest for Manu's sprained right elbow -- and are blessed (or cursed depending on your disposition) to know exactly how it feels to deal with a 1-0 deficit. This is the sixth straight series, believe it or not, in which San Antonio has lost Game 1.
Don't forget, furthermore, that Richard Jefferson had a great look to tie it at the buzzer ... and that the Spurs not only missed 11 of their whopping 47 free throws but shot 40 percent in their gym while the Grizzlies were shooting 55 percent. Late in the third quarter, Tony Parker simply sat down under the basket after missing an and-one, shaking his head in disbelief in the midst of his own 4-for-16 nightmare.
Not that the Spurs should wait for Battier's sympathy. Geeked as he is about playing with the Grizzlies' new power duo, Battier believes to this day that one more big man might have changed the course of history in Memphis. And that one play in particular -- Erick Dampier's back tap to Dirk Nowitzki in Game 3 of the Memphis-Dallas series in 2006 to set up Nowitzki for an OT-forcing 3 -- altered the fate of the Grizzlies' franchise and maybe the whole NBA, since Pau was eventually dealt to the Lakers in that controversial, landscape-changing trade once the Grizz decided to tear down its thrice-swept squad.
"They get Pau and they're a dynasty now," Battier said. "Interesting story. Interesting story."
Interesting doesn't begin to cover it if the Grizzlies' resurrection continues with the force witnessed on the first Sunday of the playoffs from Z-Bo (who got a postgame contract extension as a reward) and Pau's not-so-little bro.
22hMatt Walks, ESPN.com