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Downtown Grizzlies

Memphis vs. Everybody

Dylan Hebert/ @DH_SportsEdits

Underrated and overlooked. Perpetually the ugly stepsister of the league. Supposedly not worth the spotlight given to others instead by the NBA’s mainstream media coverage.

This lack of recognition has remained steady for the Memphis Grizzlies since the inception of the franchise. And even as the Grind City begins turning the page into a new chapter of basketball, the story remains all the same.

On Thursday, the NBA announced that the league’s Board of Governors agreed on a return-to-play initiative.

22 teams will be invited to close out the regular season in Orlando, Florida, with the first NBA action in over four months scheduled to tip-off on July 31.

As expected, the Grizzlies are one of these 22 teams, but must clear an immensely steep hurdle should they desire a date with LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

In order to conduct a balanced finish to an abruptly-halted regular season that was fair to every team in playoff contention, the league decided on a plan to bring back the six teams still in playoff contention at the time of the Coronavirus outbreak. Each of those six teams in contention, along with the other 16 teams currently in playoff position, will have eight regular-season games left to play to determine seeding.

Among those six teams, five of them hail from the Western Conference. All five (New Orleans, Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Phoenix) are determined to steal the Grizzlies 8-seed before the buzzer sounds on what has been a remarkably strange regular season.

In order to do so, one of these teams will need to be within four games of the Grizzlies in the standings after the season is over. Should the Grizzlies or any other contender have a four-game advantage at the end of the remaining regular-season games, the final playoff berth is decided without the need for a play-in tournament. Should that cushion be less than four games, however, a double-elimination play-in tournament will be necessary.

And what are NBA analysts and insiders saying about all of this? How are the national headlines reading?

Well, they read exactly as Memphis fans have come to expect. Mainstream pundits are disregarding this young and poised Grizzlies team in favor of what they consider to be “juicier” storylines.

“Will Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans swoop in and steal the final playoff spot? Will Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard turn in an other-worldly final eight games and salvage what has been an otherwise disappointing season in Portland?”

To be clear, both of these questions are certainly fun to entertain. Both a Lebron vs. Zion or a Lebron vs. Lillard first-round matchup would be must-see television. And if the dominoes fall in such a way where either of these hypotheticals become reality, then so be it.

But unsurprisingly, with how the eventual playoff race has been covered so far, anyone without knowledge of its logistics would likely be oblivious to the fact that Memphis holds a 3.5 game advantage above every other team in contention.

The Grizzlies should be the overwhelming favorite to clinch the final spot in the playoffs.

This should be the consensus, even considering the gauntlet of a final eight games Memphis must first endure. Matchups against the Bucks, Celtics, and Thunder all come to mind, among others.

Yet it seems as though many have forgotten about this Grizzlies team entirely.

It’s as if Ja Morant hasn’t had a historically-incredible rookie campaign. It’s as if several key Grizzlies won’t be returning from injury before the final stretch of the season begins. It’s almost as if within the national conversation, the Grizzlies hardly even exist.

But such has become custom in a city known for its intense work ethic and unwavering loyalty. The Memphis Grizzlies are used to being sold short by nearly everyone outside of the 901 confines.

Even in years past where the Grizzlies were undeniable contenders to win a Western Conference title, they were never a favorite to do so. At most, many saw the team as a perennial dark-horse, consistently predicted to be barely on the outside-looking-in.

And going into the final stretch of arguably the quirkiest NBA regular season in history, this trend holds steady. Even with the advantage this return-to-play scenario gives the Grizzlies, the team continues to receive its usual treatment, that of an overlooked underdog.

This talented and hungry Grizzlies group gets little-to-no respect. Per usual, every ounce of respect they receive will have to be worked for. Fought tooth-and-nail for.

Ground for.

And the best part? Nobody within the blue-collar Memphian circle would have it any other way.

The grit-and-grind era of the mid-2010s may be over. The legendary Core Four may not be around anymore. But the heart and soul of those teams never left. It resides at 191 Beale Street to this day, ready to embrace whatever challenges may approach the city and team next.

As the summer begins heating up, head coach Taylor Jenkins and Co. will board their flight to the “Happiest Place on Earth” to embark on an unprecedented NBA journey. And when they do, that same Grind City spirit — embodied so well by each member of the Grizzlies roster and staff — will board right along with them.

And when the Memphis Grizzlies touch down in Orlando on July 16, there is little doubt that they will have an entire city behind them. A city that’s just as scrappy and underappreciated as the team that calls it their home.

So to whoever wants to take a crack at the Grizzlies rightful playoff spot: bring it on. To Zion Williamson or Damian Lillard or anyone else craving a shot at the boys from Memphis: take it.

This city and this team have never backed down from any sort of challenge before, no matter how daunting. And we certainly won’t start now.

It’s Memphis vs. Errrbody.

And that’s just the way we like it.

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