Game 3 of Grizzlies-Warriors Saturday night has presented the NBA with the potential for its first great rivalry since LeBron James decoupled himself from the Cleveland Cavaliers. That was the year the Cavs were swept by Golden State by margins of 10, 19, 8 and 23, and those basketball Armageddons were left to the tender mercies of the rearview mirror.
In the brief time since then, NBA rivalries such as they are have largely been defined by players—Giannis vs. Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid vs. Ben Simmons, Kevin Durant vs. James Harden, Harden vs. Kyrie Irving, James vs. the Lakers, Kawhi Leonard vs. his own body—but no team has really risen to become the bete noire of another. Until now.
Now it can be found in the relative (by NBA big-market standards) backwater of Memphis and the now hyper-establishment that used to be a backwater Oakland/San Francisco. The Grizz and Warriors are essentially the same team in development years if you imagine the Grizzlies as the 2014 Warriors or the Warriors as the 2031 Grizzlies.
Plus, and this is a big plus, they have come to dislike each other. You can’t fast-track this sort of thing, but through two games there have been two ejections, one more egregious than the other, and you’ve had Zen master Steve Kerr blow kayfabe by calling Dillon Brooks’s clothesline of Gary Payton The Younger as flat out, no-euphemisms-needed, “dirty.” Each team has won a closely contended game, and they all hate the officials. That’s about all of it, unless you think you need a rib sauce-vs.-cioppino-off between two psychotics with ladles and cleavers.
As an aside, Bucks-Celtics could be this as well, but Antetokounmpo is so magnificently relaxed that it might never reach this point, unless he gets taken out by a Marcus Smart slide. Warriors-Grizzlies very definitely has a leg and skull up on Milwaukee and Boston in this way.
The key, though, is that the Grizzlies are old enough to remember that the Warriors were once under-relevant and became dynastic, and the Warriors see the validity of the comparison even if they won’t admit it for fear of confronting their own collective mortality. The Grizz is full of youth and bubbles and Ja Morant as the next game-defining guard, and they have come to an all-night party an hour early to get the best spot in the room. The Warriors are full of gray swatches (see Draymond Green’s beard) and ever-present health concerns, but still with most of their skills intact and with more knowhow than the Grizzlies can deal with adequately.
Oh, and Brooks clocked Payton a game after Green popped Brandon Clarke in the mush, and each team has as many Flagrant 2s as wins. Degrees of severity aside, heads are clearly in play here.
We do not suggest that this series needs more smack being talked during interviews, a line brawl at the national anthem, or Jeff Van Gundy lamenting the end of standards once held sacred when he played spaniel to Patrick Ewing’s leg. The good/bad vibes will happen organically based on the simple “two teams, one podium” conundrum. A third close game and one well-placed if inadvertent foot (as an homage to Green-Steven Adams in 2016) can give this the spark it needs to become the first truly great series of the new decade.
The only drawback here is that it can never be what Warriors-Cavs was—for the championship. And don’t call it a “chip”; you’re not four years old, and you can form multisyllabic words. The best this can ever be is for the Western Conference Final, and this isn’t even that. But you have to start somewhere, and you can’t live on debates over what player should be playing but can’t be bothered and. what player has actually been injured all this time but isn’t trusted. In other words, Simmons. At some point, the best rivalry has to be players who are present and engaged and mutually annoying to each other. This is that series, or at the very least it can be. Unless you happen to think that Heat-Sixers in floating your particular boat, and if you think that, your soul is in mortal peril.