On Wednesday night, the Grizzlies lost an extremely close game to the Spurs after two huge shots by Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal to send the game into overtime. It was a tough loss for the apparent underdog that had staked itself to a 3-1 lead in the series. When lesser seeds don't take advantage of close-out opportunities, they often suffer the consequences later in the series. And if the Spurs win Friday night's Game 6, chances are the Grizzlies will lose Game 7 and fail to pull off the upset.
San Antonio currently holds the momentum in the series. But as we've learned often in playoff history, momentum is a nebulous concept that usually only gets noticed when it shifts, not when it affects the game. So while it's right to say that the Spurs have new life in the series, it's not as if the Grizzlies are in bad shape.
In fact, an eighth-seeded underdog has been in a similar position and done just fine. In 2007, after winning the first game of the first round in Dallas and their first two home games, the We Believe Golden State Warriors went to Dallas for Game 5 with a chance to close out the series. It was a close game with many twists and turns, but the Mavericks took over late to wrestle momentum back from the upstart Warriors. Throughout the broadcast, TNT's announcers and analysts wondered if the Warriors had lost their chance.
As you no doubt know, the Warriors won Game 6 in a blowout to finish off one of the more memorable series in recent NBA history. To be sure, the Grizzlies' situation is not exactly the same. For one thing, they aren't as good a home team as the Warriors were in 2007. On the other hand, the Mavericks were a better team than the Spurs, winning a whopping 67 games and looking like the clear favorite heading into the playoffs. Still, if you analyze the apparent momentum swing, the Warriors arguably blew their Game 5, whereas the Grizzlies played reasonably well towards the end of the game and got beaten by a team that made improbably huge plays down the stretch. If momentum matters, then the Grizzlies have more of it than the Warriors did in '07.
The point here is that momentum does not always play out the same way, if at all. Bethlehem Shoals discussed this concept Thursday on his GQ.com playoffs blog:
Sports logic demands we talk about a glorious revival, an epic shift in momentum. This was the one game that changed it all. The broken Grizzlies are left to suck on their paws and obediently drop the next two in a row.
All this presumes that fans have insight into some mythic athlete psyche, which is less about how athletes do think, and more about how we want them to. Athletes, by and large, are confident to a fault, if not egomaniacs. They can be stunned into submission, or just plain out-manned. And certainly, we have seen teams' spirits broken by a single dagger of a shot; the rest of the game, or the series, is downhill from there. But to assume that the Grizzlies are done, simply because we ourselves would feel devastated, or because we like the way a certain story goes, is a colossal mistake.
The Spurs are an excellent veteran team that's proven to be remarkably tough over the course of more than a decade. But their win on Wednesday doesn't change the fact that the Grizzlies have held the upper hand in the paint, or that they also have a serious athleticism advantage, or that Game 6 is on their home floor. Game 5 was a tough loss, but Memphis still holds factual edges in this series that aren't tied to confidence gaps or spiritual superiority. Why shouldn't they be confident after taking a desperate team to the edge in a hostile environment?
Momentum can certainly affect a game -- it's a big reason why teams play so much better at home, where every big play is amplified by a raucous crowd. But its impact from game to game is often overrated. The Grizzlies may very well lose Game 6, too. Yet, if they do, it'll probably have more to do with the Spurs playing exceedingly well than their own mental deficiencies.