While Memphis—which months ago was red-flagged as a struggling NBA market with lackluster fan support—celebrates, the Spurs will stew and bemoan another lost opportunity.
Friday night might have been it for this group.
Yes, four championships will save Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich's legacies. Analysts will also remember Antonio McDyess as a persevering competitor who overcame a once crushing, career-threatening injury. They'll applaud a flawed squad for winning as often as it did when few thought finishing with the Western Conference's best mark was possible.
That cannot erase the piquancy or the sense that a championship hopeful's core may have exhaled its last breath.
Next up for the Spurs: pray that a work-stoppage does not force the cancellation of the 2011-2012 season.
Count me among the worst pessimists. I don't anticipate any professional basketball in the U.S. until the 2012-2013 season, so the Harlem Globetrotters may have to fill the void.
In the meantime, let the soul-searching and unwanted vacation in San Antonio begin.
The final two minutes of Friday's game were too unbearable to watch. Supporters once believed no horrific conclusion could top the shot Derek Fisher drilled with 0.4 seconds in Game 5 of the 2004 conference semifinals.
Fisher has appropriate company in the Grizzlies. They tanked to set up this tussle, and Lionel Hollins knew what he was doing. He approaches his job the way Popovich does, with an admirable earnestness and an "aw, shucks" attitude.
Yes, a No. 1 seed lost to an eighth seed, but has any playoff entrant slotted that low ever employed a player as impossible to contain as Zach Randolph? A visit from an army of jungle animals and trained assassins could not have shaken him.
McDyess made him work, but Randolph never cared if a hand was there, or if the grizzled veteran delivered a few shoves and bumps. He relished the contact. Has Dirk Nowitzki even drained a shot as tough as Friday's back-breaker from the right elbow? McDyess appeared to get a piece of the ball, and it wasn't enough.
Nowitzki would laugh at the suggestion, but it felt that way.
The Spurs secured home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs only to have the basketball gods punish them with one of the most difficult first-round opponents in 30 years.
The Grizzlies won in Boston, split with Miami, split with Orlando, split with the L.A. Lakers, split with Atlanta and won series against Dallas and Oklahoma City 3-1. Memphis triumphed just 46 times because a slew of defeats to bottom-feeders handicapped their chances to move up the standings.
Don't be surprised if this eighth seed faces the Lakers in the conference finals and scares L.A. much worse than New Orleans.
Against the Spurs, the Grizzlies were undaunted and ready with devastating answers. Mike Conley chucked the scouting report in the trash and outplayed a future Hall-of-Fame point guard for much of a tilted match. Randolph and Gasol snatched the most improbable loose balls.
Gary Neal prolonged a season with a heroic shot, but Memphis and its suddenly raucous fan base snuffed out the jubilation when it mattered most.
The Spurs' game plan seemed foolproof. Wouldn't any team go into a series with this ballsy bunch hoping to keep the rebounding and points-in-the-paint battles close? Wouldn't any team like its chances if it did both in four of the six contests?
San Antonio was fighting more than just a confident foe with a reason to boast. It had to win when an effort that would have knocked out most lower seeds seemed to spark even more laughter from the Grizzlies.
Ha. Beat us? What inspired such tomfoolery?
Spurs' GM R.C. Buford has a lot of work to do whenever the lockout ends. His team could not win one road game in this series, and that does not suggest it could have contended given a different path.
Still, the Spurs will know they were better than lucky. They were not fortunate enough in March. Lucky is drawing the New Orleans Hornets without David West. He meant much more to that franchise than Rudy Gay's overrated, overpriced perimeter game did to his.
The Lakers knew they could pound the Hornets whenever the mood suited them. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum feasted on Aaron Gray, Emeka Okafor and an undersized Carl Landry.
That does not compare to facing an unconscious Randolph or an unflappable Marc Gasol. The lottery-bound Houston Rockets played better for more of March and April than the seventh and eighth seeds in the Eastern Conference, and the Heat and Bulls still struggled to put away mediocre opponents.
The Grizzlies led the league in points in the paint and offensive rebounding. The defense became more of an irritating bitch than Joan Rivers after five cocktails. Tony Allen and Shane Battier might comprise league's fiercest defensive tandem.
Only Miami, L.A. and Boston employ stoppers that can compete on that level or surpass it.
A top seed needed one gritty road performance to force the Game 7 it won 61 times to get. The record will show that the Spurs kept the outcome in doubt until the final minutes.
The Golden State Warriors, after all, dropkicked the Mavericks long before halftime of that 2007 clincher. By the time the eight-minute mark of that gruesome fourth quarter arrived, Nowitzki was sulking next to Josh Howard. The former had just been named MVP after his team responded to a Finals collapse with 67 victories.
No one in the Spurs organization should worry about such an embarrassing, belated press conference.
Ginobili may have received enough votes to finish in the top 10, but he will not threaten runaway MVP recipient Derrick Rose.
If Beale Street rejoices tonight, the Riverwalk will become a cemetery. Duncan's fifth title hopes are dead, perhaps for good.
Memphis Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins wrote after Neal's heave that he did not want to hear about Mario Chalmers infamous hail mary versus the Tigers. Friday's outcome was as painful as anything that fair city has ever experienced.
I cannot publish this without offering some apologies. I'm sorry that Popovich did everything possible to keep his veterans fresh and was not rewarded when he needed a return on investment the most.
I'm sorry that Duncan, one of the most consistent, finest competitors this sport has seen will have to watch Kobe Bryant rack up more rings.
I'm sorry that Peter Holt, for once, agreed to exceed the luxury tax threshold and has one playoff series win to show for it.
I'm sorry that McDyess put off retirement only to be slammed by the ultimate heartbreak. He signed with San Antonio to fulfill his career-long dream. I imagine a first-round exit might smack him worse than losing a Game 7 at the AT&T Center while with the Detroit Pistons.
I'm sorry that Richard Jefferson was too pitiful to become the explosive wing contributor the Spurs needed to take down the big boys. He played a few ineffective minutes in the first half and remained glued to the bench while his teammates tried to salvage an inexcusable, deflating and abysmal start. The Grizzlies roared to a 16-4 lead and trailed just once after that explosion.
I'm most sorry for Ginobili.
The NBA playoffs are better and more exciting with him on the floor because no one wants to win more. He was out of commission for the opener, sidelined with a hyper-extended right elbow, when he could have made a series-changing difference.
He needs supervision now. Someone better make sure he doesn't lock himself in a room and mourn for three weeks. His twins will keep him sane. At least he has them.
Neal accomplished more in one astonishing freshman campaign than most other undrafted rookies do in an elongated tenure. Fans should honor him for sending the series back to the banks of the Mississippi.
Mercifully, this did not end in the Alamo City.
Parker turns 30 next May. No one can know where his career goes from here. He won't lose what he had for much of the season, but he will not get a better shot at a fourth title.
Tiago Splitter should have seen more daylight. He will become a beloved blue-collar regular whenever the Spurs take the court next. He just didn't get here in time to help Duncan reach the NBA's Everest again.
James Anderson will earn another long look, and I expect he'll endear himself to San Antonio followers too.
Dejuan Blair and Matt Bonner will rank as villains in the eyes of some, but they were invaluable in many key victories. Bonner afforded the Spurs a chance to stay close with his first-half production; he led all scorers on his team with nine.
Popovich will have a lot to think about. His squad was lucky to trail by just three at intermission. Will he follow Phil Jackson to the exit sign when Duncan says "adios," or does he have a few more seasons left in his tank beyond that dreaded day?
So many questions beg for answers. No response will cure the malaise.
David Stern and his affronted, bloodthirsty owners will make sure the Spurs have plenty of time to think about this. Maybe a year. Maybe more. Holt, in a twist of painful irony, seems to be the most dogmatic advocate for change.
Another apology is in order. I'm sorry that most observers in this country will toast a premature funeral. San Antonio's contention was a tremendous gift for small-market franchises.
Now, the Lakers and some other loaded unit with more loot than a pirate ship departing a treasure-filled island will meet in the NBA Finals. Fans in Minnesota and other supposed hoops wastelands will wonder if their teams will ever matter again.
The Grizzlies would provide some hope—if they did not need to steal three other series without home-court advantage.
The Thunder must then carry the burden. Fat chance. If Randolph abused McDyess' herculean defense, he'll use Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins as his personal restroom. Perkins shut down Dwight Howard, but he hasn't faced this Z-Bo.
There is no consolation here, nothing to feel good about. A proud organization assembled a June hopeful and watched those hopes crash land at FedEx Forum. Authorities will not encounter any survivors in this wreckage, just charred remains.
The only other team ousted this week with realistic Larry O'Brien trophy aspirations, the Orlando Magic, might argue its defeat could inflict more damage. Dwight Howard can become a free agent in 2012, and everyone knows what Shaquille O'Neal did when given that opportunity.
A former ray of sunshine has become a black cloud that will hover over San Antonio and swallow all happiness in its path.
Fisher and 0.4? I'd take that before this.
Cruelty, as the Spurs learned once more Friday, has no limits.
A Primer on the Spurs' Roster Situation
My characterization of this season as the Big Three's last shot is based on a sobering belief that labor strife will wipe out the final year on Duncan's contract. If the players and owners hammer out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this summer or early fall, the ballgame changes.
I doubt Duncan calls it quits if he merely loses a few months. A one-year layoff though? A 35-year-old carrying around thousands of playoff miles might not survive such a break. Time is not on his side.
Parker and Ginobili remain under contract for three more years, and it says here they will stick around for all three.
Jefferson's reworked deal will keep him employed three additional seasons, but after his no-show in this series, the front office may entertain offers that start with a bag of chips.
Splitter inked a three-year deal last summer, and George Hill becomes a restricted free agent in 2012.
McDyess has all but decided to hang up his sneakers, according to the San Antonio Express-News. He showed he still has a lot to give a contender, but a hasty playoff exit may have sealed his choice.
Blair remains under contract, ditto for Bonner.
Steve Novak and Chris Quinn will hit the market as unrestricted FAs. See ya, fellas.
I am not sure what to think of Danny Green. Maybe Popovich saw something in the former Tar Heel's potential defensive prowess that merits another look.
Neal will return. If Da'Sean Butler can complete his rehabilitation, he might make next year's squad.
Can Buford add size via the draft? Will the mid-level exception still exist, and will his team exceed the cap to allow him to use it?
The roster, then, looks like this:
The average age of that squad, if it played tomorrow? 24.8.
Well, if the Spurs can't be champions, at least they won't be old.