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MikeCheck: Durant cites Grizzlies for role in Warriors’ title march

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – With protective goggles hanging from his neck, the championship cocktail of champagne and sweat soaking his shirt and the Finals MVP trophy at his side, Kevin Durant explained how one of the darkest points of his season paved the way to Golden State’s ultimate success.

Consider it Durant’s shout-out to the Memphis Grizzlies.

No, Grind City didn’t make the NBA Finals, although Memphis was glued to the drama that unfolded every step of the way as a Top-5 viewership market in Finals TV ratings. But according to Durant, the Grizzlies did play a pivotal role in helping the Warriors sort through some of the early confusion and relative chemistry kinks they would overcome on the way to a historic 16-1 run through the playoffs.

The Warriors capped their dominant display with Monday’s series-clinching win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Finals. Barring injury or ego, it’s a safe bet that this is the start of a dynasty the likes of which the NBA hasn’t seen since Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the 1990s.

But there were humble beginnings to the Durant era in the Bay Area. Enter the Grizzlies.

As Durant sat at the postgame podium Monday night taking in euphoria from his first NBA title, he took everyone back to the aftermath of a demoralizing home loss to Memphis on Jan. 6, when the Grizzlies rallied from a 24-point deficit in the third quarter to snag a 128-119 overtime victory at Oracle Arena.

“I can remember when we were in Sacramento,” Durant recalled in his postgame comments. “We just lost to Memphis, we gave up the lead, we were up 20 – I’m sure you guys remember – Draymond (Green) pulled me aside (when) we were having dinner the next night, and he told me to be myself. Don’t worry about anything, just be you, keep working, everything’s going to come around.”

This wasn’t exactly prophetic. Durant was expected to be a great fit in Golden State’s selfless system. They were destined to win a championship. What they’ve done should surprise absolutely no one with a pulse and at least a passing interest in the game. After all, Durant was already a four-time league scoring champion who also arrived with a regular-season MVP trophy in his collection.

Yet, there was still a necessary feeling-out process for Durant and the Warriors, who eventually found their footing and ended the Finals having won 31 of 33 games dating back to the regular season. Durant averaged 35.2 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 55.6 percent in the series against the Cavaliers.

But the unstoppable superstar, who seemed to hit every big shot the Warriors needed in the Finals, once dealt with doubts and uncertainty earlier in the season. Durant had to push through two challenging stages of adversity before he and the Warriors hit their championship stride. He sustained a knee injury in March and would miss a month before returning late in the regular season to restore his fitness.

However, it was an earlier stretch of turbulence that raised questions about his fit. That was in January, when the Grizzlies caught the Warriors and Durant dealing with some discomfort. Among the reasons that overtime loss has stuck with Durant throughout the season was that it involved a complete, late-game collapse as the Grizzlies were mounting their comeback against the disjointed Warriors.

After one offensive breakdown late in the game, when Durant called for the ball but refused to shoot during a derailed possession, Green and Durant engaged in a heated exchange on the court that continued in the huddle after an ensuing timeout. The same small-ball lineup that rang up prolific numbers in the Finals against Cleveland was once exposed by the Grizzlies late in that Jan. 6 game, when Zach Randolph punished Durant in the post on the way to 27 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

I was struggling at that point.. To have teammates that encourage you, that lift you up, that’s what we all need in life. We came together, believed in each other and sacrificed. And we’re champions now.
-- Kevin Durant

To this day, most Warriors consider it their worst loss of the season. Memphis matched its franchise record for largest deficit overcome in the fourth, and it was the Warriors’ biggest blown lead since 1999. Golden State carried a nine-game win streak into that game and had won 94 of 100 games at Oracle.

“We are trying some different things and we just haven’t executed well,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in January after Golden State lost to Memphis for the second time in as many months. “We’re trying to get guys in better position. We’ll … continue to experiment and try different things.”

The Warriors have rarely been vulnerable over a three-year span in which they’ve compiled a 207-39 regular-season record, advanced to three consecutive Finals and won two championships. But outside of the Spurs, no other team in the West has forced Golden State to take inventory quite like Memphis. The Grizzlies split the four-game season series with the Warriors and were ahead 2-1 in a second-round playoff series against Golden State two years ago during its first championship season.

Earlier this season, Green drew some criticism from within and outside his locker room when he strongly suggested after the overtime loss to Memphis that the Warriors needed to lose that game.

“I’m actually happy we lost, because there are some things we need to correct in order to win a championship,” Green said at the time. “That’s our goal. Our fourth quarter offense has been atrocious.”

With as much talent as the Warriors assembled, it was only a matter of time before they cleaned up their act. The Grizzlies’ unique style of play, largely predicated on physicality and minimizing possessions, contrasts with Golden State’s free-flowing, high-scoring offense. It’s made for some uncomfortable matchups over the past few seasons.

For Durant, facing the Grizzlies six months ago provided a humbling turning point amid a less than seamless transition with his new team. His post-Finals reflection added some necessary perspective to a championship journey the Warriors ultimately made appear as if it were a cakewalk.

“I was struggling at that point,” Durant said Monday night of the January breakdown against Memphis that forced the Warriors to regroup in Sacramento. “To have teammates that encourage you, that lift you up, that’s what we all need in life. You call us a super team. But there are a lot of super teams that haven’t worked. We came together, believed in each other and sacrificed. And we’re champions now.”

The Grizzlies are among 29 teams facing the daunting task of taking down a fledgling dynasty.

But in the midst of celebrating his first title, Durant singled them out for their contribution.

They provided an early challenge that helped these Warriors pull themselves together.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.