The Playoff Diaries: Memphis BBQ memories and more buzzer beaters

John Atkinson

John Wall

As promised at the end of last installment, I'm catching up on Wizards vs Bulls the morning after, and the Wiz are looking a lot smoother out of the gate this time, going up as much as 17 in the first half and Bradley Beal and John Wall combining to score almost as many points after two quarters as they did all of last game. But the Bulls are fearless and keep hanging around on strong play by ostensible second-teamers DJ Augustin and Taj Gibson, gradually but steadily whittling the lead down. Chicago takes their first lead with five minutes left in the third and extend it to 10 points after five minutes in the fourth, with the tragic, Icarus-like Derrick Rose cheering from the sidelines.

But it’s a game of big, long runs, and the shift in momentum back towards the Wiz feels expected and inexorable. Beal especially looks way more confident than in Game 1, throwing daggers from beyond the arc and silky floaters in the paint—and tying the game to send it into overtime—like a younger, tattooed Joe Johnson. Washington ends up going on a 20-4 run from the end of the fourth and through overtime, giving them their first first 2-0 playoff series lead since 1982 over the Nets!

It's the third overtime in the past six playoff games, a testament to how much closer and more intensely-fought every game becomes in the postseason. These guys are pros and no one’s exactly dogging it during the regular season, but the difference in motivation and intensity in the playoffs is… impressive.

April 23: Mavericks/Spurs, Game 3

Watching Dallas and San Antonio gives me the unexpected pleasure of hearing the fantastic Nets broadcast team of Ian Eagle and NJ’s own Mike “The Czar” Fratello calling the game on NBA TV. The Emmy award-winning Eagle’s black-framed glasses and slyly nerdy sense of humor make him the most relatable broadcaster in the game (to hipsters like me, at least)—and the Czar’s thick New Jersey brogue is as wondrous as his mastery of the telestrator. And, unlike many NBA broadcasters I can think of, Mike and Ian aren’t mindless homers but true fans of ‘the game’, and bring the same level of intensity and enthusiasm to this as to a regular ‘home’ game.

Dirk Nowitzki was off in Game 1 and continues his cold shooting to start Game 2, starting 0-6. But other Mavs—including ex-Net Devin Harris (again!) along with MontAY Ellis and Shawn Marion—more than pick up the slack and take advantage of uncharacteristically sloppy play by the Spurs to go up as by as many as 15 points in the second. But the Spurs close the half on a quick 10-0 run thanks to some typically wily Manu Ginobili action, and after San Antonio’s cold-blooded, implacable comeback in the fourth quarter in Game 1, this one seems far from over.

But with quiet games from Tim Duncan and key cogs like Kawhi Leonard, there’s only so far vintage Manu can take you—even when he’s going 5-5 from three point range and racking up 27 points through three quarters. The Spurs defense is uncharacteristically discombobulated, and this Dallas team, which has always been able to score, does. Jose Calderon steps up for an 11-point third quarter, and before long in the fourth the Mavericks are up 20 and Coach Pop is waving the white flag in what is the worst Spurs home playoff loss in more than two decades.

I’m happy for the underdog Mavs, but starting to worry about the Spurs. They’ve trailed for a lot of these first two games in what was supposed to be a cakewalk of a series. Do I need to look elsewhere for our best hope of avoiding the frankly-unbearable prospect of a Miami three-peat?

April 24: Rockets/Blazers, Game 2

I’m leaving for New York tomorrow and have a ton to do today as a result—including actual, paying work—but thanks to my disciplined avoidance of social media I still have an unspoiled, sure-to-be-juicy Houston-Portland Game 2 to watch. My playoff thirst is still strong, and, fortunately, I’m an able and eager multi-tasker. Remind me to show y’all my hoops/music mancave next time, you may lol.

As discussed in the previous installment of this column, I… don’t like Dwight Howard. And much to my dismay, this epic joker starts off Game 2 in extremely aggressive and effective fashion, scoring the Rockets first 11 points and 25 in the first half on 9-15 ‘shooting’ (all within 3 feet of the hoop), along with a few monster blocks that seemed to turn back the clock to his days in Orlando.

Is it a coincidence that Dwight is putting up this kind of focused effort during a game in which he’s mic’d up, and shortly after being called out by Shaq on TNT? Do you think true competitors, like, oh I don’t know… Kobe need to be pushed into the spotlight to get coaxed to playoff-level intensity? Regardless, poor Robin Lopez looks overmatched in the early going, and at least Dwight’s Dominant Big Man impression gets Shaq excited enough to temporarily cure his terminal sleepymouth during the halftime show.

But Portland withstands the onslaught thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge, fresh off dropping 46 points in Game 1. LMA keeps up with D12 throughout the first half, scoring 21 on 9-12 shooting—and, unlike Howard’s reliance on a strict diet of dunks, putbacks, and Skittles, Aldridge’s incredibly efficient performance comes via an increasingly-absurd onslaught of midrange jumpers. Portland takes the lead briefly before the end of the half before Patrick Beverley ties it up on a sweet buzzer-beating stepback. This is gonna be a good one.

And Portland comes out BLAZING after the half. LMA continues his old-school midrange onslaught, and Dwight is suddenly quiet—sugar crash?—picking up a fourth foul and spending much of the rest of the game on the bench chewing a towel. And James Harden is not making ANYTHING, shooting sub-30% through nearly two games of playoff action.

Quick color notes: one of the broadcasters notes that Rockets semi-star Chandler Parsons made some comments before the game about how he felt like he was the best small forward in the series. I like Chandler Parsons, but when the other small forward in the series is the omni-talented French Swiss army knife Nicolas Batum, dude is not only objectively wrong, but may be putting himself in danger. (CUE THE BATUM NUT PUNCH GIF!)

Also, I noticed Patrick Beverley doing some skipping again in the third—is this his regular thing or is it some extra playoff flair? I didn’t watch a lot of Rockets this year on account of the whole hating-Dwight thing. Either way, I like it!

Anyway, Portland seems like it has this locked up, going up nine in the fourth over the increasingly demoralized and rudderless Rockets, but they get sloppy down the stretch, a tired-looking Aldridge actually misses a few shots, and the door is ajar. But Harden fouls out right after finally nailing a clutch three, and Portland makes their free throws to seal the deal. Despite the closeness of the games, the Rockets still don't seem fully 'there' mentally, and with the action going back to Portland this could be a quick series.

April 24: Grizzlies vs Thunder, Game 3 (and Pacers vs Hawks, Game 3)

The series moves to Memphis for Game 3, which gives me a good occasion to reminisce about the few days I spent out there last fall in the run-up to a friend’s wedding in Nashville. Or, at least, I’m gonna reminisce about the truly decadent amount of ribs we ate in our quest to find ‘the best’ in town. As my Memphian cousin told me, there’s no real single 'best' answer, but these are my Top 3 rib joints, and I’d say that any of them could take you to smoked meat heaven, depending the particular flavor of your desire on a given day/night:

Central BBQ: The ‘platonic ideal’ of Memphis-style ribs. Consistently perfect, fall-of-the-bone texture, classic flavor—this is what you think of when you think ribs, and this is what all the wannabe NY barbecue joints aim for and fail at.

Payne’s: A leaky-ceilinged, old-school rib joint, Payne’s has a completely unremarkable, vibeless interior and maybe the most voluptuous, raunchily flavorful ribs we ate. If Central is the flawless, model-type chick you wanna take home to mom, Payne’s is the almost-too-thick side chick you wanna take somewhere weird.

Rendezvous: Huge spot in a tiny alley downtown, very conveniently open late and within walking distance of FedEx Forum. Eating here after taking in a Grizzlies (preseason) game and before getting weird with some ghosts at Earnestine & Hazel’s was a defining Memphis evening for me. Amazing and utterly unique dry ribs with an indescribable rub and crazy vinegar sauce, these have actually haunted me the most.

…Anyway, yeah, Memphis is a great place to eat (and drink, but that’s another diary) and a great place to watch basketball, with the best in-arena DJing you’ll ever hear—i.e. pure unadultered classic dirty south shit. But the Grizzlies’ brutally physical defense is making it an extremely unpleasant place for Oklahoma City to play basketball, with the Thunder scoring just 36 points in the first two quarters, their lowest-scoring half all season. In particular, Tony Allen is doing incredible, nasty work on Kevin Durant, coming as close as humanly possible to shutting down the best scorer on the planet and forcing OKC’s rudimentary offensive scheme (1. KD 2. ??? 3. RUSS) into all kinds of ugly action.

(Out of morbid curiosity, during halftime I switch over to watch the Hawks close out a win over the Pacers. Who. Are. Not. Snapping. Out. Of. It. Paul George, George Hill, and Roy Hibbert are a combined 6-30 when I tune in, and Hibbert basically sits the entire fourth quarter while Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver rain down death from above. I’m on team underdog of course so I’m psyched for Atlanta, but the utter collapse of what was once one of the greatest threats to Miami’s infernal three-peat aspirations is ominous. Also, it pains me to hear Frank Vogel’s gorgeous New Jersey accent expressing such sorrow…)

Back in Mermphis, the Grizzlies go up by as much as 17 in the third quarter, with Gasol and Z-Bo getting whatever they want in the paint and the home crowd getting wildly crunk in the Grindhouse. But the fourth is a massive regression to the mean for both teams as the Grizzlies are suddenly ice cold, going scoreless for more than six minutes while the Thunder reel off a furious 17-0 run. Tony Allen finally breaks the seal, mugging Russell Westbrook and scoring on a breakaway dunk, but OKC answers with a four-point play on a ridiculous Russbro 3 + Allen foul.

The Thunder manage to send the game into overtime, but seem completely gassed by the effort. Durant continues to struggle and is particularly futile from long range, going 0-8 from three point territory. I gotta admit, it’s hard to imagine this happening to LeBron (ugh).

Meanwhile, Memphis finally rediscovers the plot on offense, keying off of the always-underrated Mike Conley and the impossible-to-overrate Marc Gasol. The Grizz win in relatively comfortable fashion, continuing an improbably strong day for underdogs.

April 25: Clippers vs Warriors

I’m writing this as I watch the last quarter of Clippers vs Dubs Game 2 on my phone, riding the Flyaway bus to LAX en route to New York. All praise to the Flyaway bus, an extremely chill way to get to and from the airport from my house and kind of one of my favorite things about LA. Pretty much everything you need to know about my East vs. West Coast vibe right now can be kind of summed up in the phenomenology of traveling to/from LAX via Flyaway Bus vs. JFK via AirTrain…

But there are always numerous, awesome reasons to return to the East. In addition to Brooklyn remaining home to very many of my favorite people, Aa is recording tracks for our new album with Jeremy Scott at the post-Sandy Civil Defense, and I’m playing a show at Glasslands with Dinowalrus, in my new and very fun role as the auxiliary percussion-wielding Bez in their current Happy Mondays-inflected incarnation. It should be a fun long weekend of typical New York behavior, but I’m a little stressed about finding sufficient time to catch all the games I ‘need’ to watch.

Golden State looks extremely sloppy for most of the game, with 13 turnovers in the first half and Steph Curry continuing to struggle with Chris Paul’s dogged defense. The Human Torch is 3-16 from deep in the series so far, and it’s impossible to imagine Golden State going anywhere without him (or, Klay, or Iggy) getting going in a big way.

Especially without Andrew Bogut, whose absence has allowed the ultra-athletic Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan duo to run wild over the Warriors’ non-existent interior defense. It’s unsurprising at this point to see Blake play at such a high level, but I’m starting to think I need to reevaluate my low regard for DeAndre’s game as well.

And maybe I need to reevaluate my feelings about the Clippers too? Sam asked me last week why I don’t really like them and I didn’t have a very good answer, just some combination of 1. Not wanting to be a front-runner/overdogger and 2. Their lack of ‘authenticity’ from a true Angeleno’s perspective compared to the Lakers… But let’s be honest, my Brooklyn Nets are in the same boat vis a vis the Knicks, in terms of being both better and less ‘authentic’.

Am I being unfair to the team from my adopted home whose historic struggles with respect most closely resemble those of my own original home team?

Really, there’s only one clear reason to hate on the Clippers—their owner, Donald Sterling, is a hideously leathery, racist lizard-person. But how much do we really care about owners? We fatten the wallets of variously awful, ethically dubious capitalist overlords with some, many, or even most of our purchasing decisions—why hold sports owners to a higher standard? And, with the Clippers’ unprecedented on-court success in the past couple of years, Sterling’s off-court vileness has receded from the spotlight and become relatively easy to ignore…

(*FORESHADOWING*)

Anyway, the Warriors manage to wake up the Roaracle crowd in the fourth quarter thanks to some typically unreal threes from the Human Torch and his trusty sidekick Klay, but the Clips quickly extinguish the rally with a clutch jumper by Blake and a couple of daggerous Chris Paul triples. There’s no fucking way Golden State continues to shoot this badly from deep, so my many Warriors fan-friends can probably look forward to some serious regression to mean on that end—but the Clippers are starting to look like a juggernaut.

April 25: Nets vs Raptors

Landing at JFK, I hit the ground running—or, rather, I hit the cab streaming, tuning into the Nets game on my phone just as Brooklyn reels off a 12-1 run to go up eight at halftime. DWill is breaking ankles and generally tormenting Kyle Lowry, KG and Pierce are amping up the crowd, Broooooooklyyyyyn chants are raining down at Barclays—it’s good to be back!

I switch over to the Wizards vs Bulls at halftime and these cap city kids are looking verrrry good, and Beal and Wall looking more comfortable every game. As a Nets fan I’ve learned the hard way to never count out the Bulls, even—or especially—when they seem overmatched talent-wise. But the Wiz are intermittently looking like a legit dark horse contender, and this display of wild, borderline homoerotic gulliness by Nene was a hell of a statement—the Wiz are NOT fucking around.

The Nets, though… after building up a 15-point lead through the fourth on the strength of tantalizing Brooklyn's Backcourt action from DWill and Joe Johnson, the Nets let their lead dwindle to two over the last five agonizing minutes, which remind me too much of last year's famously 'heartless and gutless' losses vs. the Bulls. Fortunately, clutch free throw shooting by Joe Cool and Pierce seal the win, but I'm worried.

April 25: Rockets vs Blazers

For the Houston/Portland game I'm joined by a pretty elite group of Brooklyn sportsbros, and amongst all the catchup chatter and beers consumed I didn't take a ton of notes, mentally or otherwise. Suffice to say, like most of the playoff games, and all of the Rockets vs Portland games, it was electrifying. And, of course, as usual, it all came down to… TROY DANIELS

Me and dudes are all pretty big fans of the league but everyone was like 'who the fuck is Troy Daniels??' when the recent D-Leaguer entered the game, and I'm pretty sure the Blazers were similarly confused. DJ and sports/rap scholar Andy “Skinny” Friedman said he's pretty sure that “Troy Daniels” was a mixtape rapper that was on Rocafella for like two months in 1999, which sounds like a great joke but also extremely plausible and I think dude was serious?

These playoffs are insane already AND IT'S ONLY THE FIRST ROUND. Christ.

April 26: Pacers vs Hawks, Game 3 and Mavericks vs San Antonio, Game 3

Saturday morning, news of the Donald Sterling tape hits. It's obviously ugly stuff but on first blush I'm halfway not expecting this to be a huge deal—everyone has known that that dude is 100 percent terrible for most of the 30+ years of his Clippers reign, and honestly, while the sentiments are obviously reprehensible it's also kind of exactly the kind of stuff I assumed Sterling says on a regular basis. But maybe now someone has to do something about it now that the Clippies are relevant? Like the post-season didn't already have enough drama.

Anyway, I'm in Aa practice all afternoon but manage to discreetly half-watch the Indiana vs Atlanta action on my phone. Indiana is up but clearly trying to give the game away, fouling Korver from three down the stretch, Paul George missing a pair of free throws, everyone looking really unhappy in general, etc. But they hold on for the win after Macedonian stretch center Pero Antic juuuust misses what would have been a game-winning three at the buzzer, which was kind of weird actually? Antic is a legit threat from deep, and the way these playoffs are going there's got to be a “The Pero Antic Game” lurking somewhere.

After practice, I've got an hour or so to kill before heading out to Baby's All Right for the last-ever (maybe) show by HOUSEHOLD, the excellent and righteous post-punk project of Miss Talya Cooper. I tune in for the home stretch of Dallas vs San Antonio on slight delay, and it's a tight one, lots of Manu doing Manu thangs… but before I get to the end, I get a one-word text from a friend: “Vinsanity”. Oh man, the spoiler stung but do I ever still love this half-amazing dude:

Love him even more because Carter missed a similar shot in the 2001 playoffs while with the Raptors, and had this to say:

“To be honest with you, I thought about that as we were coming out of the timeout… Sometimes you'll miss a big shot—2001—and you'll hold onto it for a while until you get the opportunity again. I'm just glad it worked out this time—years later.”

Deep shit! Warm VC feelings were also pretty handy in blocking out my revulsion at Mark Cuban's disturbing post-game celebration tongue-wagging:

April 27: Grizzlies vs Thunder, Game 4

I'm at Jeremy Scott's Civil Defense Studios in DUMBO for the Aa recording sesh all day, but manage to half-watch most of the previous night's OKC vs Memphis game while the drummers set up. I get peppered with questions from drummer Julian, wise well beyond his 22 years in many ways but largely hoops-ignorant. However, as a lifelong New Yorker, dude has Seinfeld in his blood, and in discussing my struggles with avoiding spoilers while watching these games ex post facto he hits on an intriguing missing link: apparently the Seinfeld pilot revolves around Jerry trying to avoid spoilers about a Mets game he has taped and is forced to socially isolate himself?? Julian's gonna send me a copy of the episode, I'll report back.

Anyway Memphis is AMPED and has a vice grip on the pace, keeping things on a slow grind and Tony Allen continuing to render Kevin Durant largely ineffective. Gasol is good at everything. But the game swings back and forth until Reggie Jackson finally breaks out with some Mr. October type shit, scoring 32 and leading the OKC offense down the stretch to send the game into OT and win it.

Three overtimes in a row in this series, and I'm bummed that Memphis isn't going to OKC up 3-1. But the Grizzlies are still very much in this, and soon I'm distracted by Julian's questions for drummer Mike about his work as a doctor, and what is the most disgusting thing he's ever seen: gonorrhea of the posterior throat. Talk about a healthy dose of perspective! I feel #blessed.

Also #blessed that the recording session goes great, banging out an album's worth of drum tracks in a day (while I intermittently check up on Washington's mellow dominance of the Bulls)! Spoiler alert: lots of drums on this album. Really drummy drumming. Crazy to think that we're gonna be halfway through the next basketball season by the time this comes out! Definitely need to get everything wrapped before fantasy basketball drafts in October…

April 26: Nets vs Raptors, Game 4

I gotta go straight from the studio to pre-show run-throughs with Dinowalrus, where I periodically check up on the Dubs holy wrath vs the Clippers. Inside-out warmups was a cool touch, I feel terrible for these guys. No way the Clips were gonna win this one—and how are they going to play back in LA on Tuesday?

I've got about an hour between run-throughs and soundcheck to hustle through Williamsburg with a jangling bag full of auxiliary percussion goodies, stressing about finding a place between North 14th and Glasslands where I can get a quick dinner and a couple of beers while watching the game's first half. Despite the neighborhood’s ever-more-bro character, Williamsburg still seems to have kind of a dearth of quality sportsbars, or even just regular bars that show sports in a quality setting.

Happily, I discover BBQ spot Mable's Banquet Hall en route to Glasslands, which has the game on over the bar. I'm generally suspicious of non-southern BBQ after countless disappointing-yet-expensive experiences at trendy spots in New York and LA, but all that thinking about Memphis has been putting a serious barbecue lust in my heart…

Which Mable's adequately relieved, more or less! Ribs were definitely some of the best I've had in NY, for whatever that's worth. The basketball side of the equation was less satisfying, as not only were the Nets down by double digits, but I was clearly the only person in the place with any interest in the game at all. I mean, you obviously can't judge the Nets fanbase from the vibe across a few blocks of Williamsburg, but I definitely passed bars playing reality TV shows and video fucking golf before I found one showing the game, and walking around you would really have no idea there was a Pretty Big Game going on at Barclays that night

Unless of course you walked to Glasslands and saw me streaming the game on my phone, cursing in the corner when I wasn't being mesmerized by the charmingly French Glockabelle's shredtastic thimble-glockenspiel cover of “Misirlou”. Was glad to have Ancient Ocean's guitar-drone to cool out my zone afterwards, and a bucket hat to vibe out under during Dinowalrus's set. Nets are gonna need to show some serious HEART/GUTS in Game 5 and for the rest of this series to earn a shot at the Heat—the least-stressed team in the league by a mile right now.

April 28: Houston vs Portland

I'm frantically trying to squeeze in the surely-bonkers Portland vs Houston game while I pack to go back to LA and get the finished tracks from yesterday's session. While I'm distracted, I'm not too distracted to notice and thoroughly enjoy Dwight's glorious missed dunk:

…8 hours later or so, I'm back on the Flyaway bus in LA, watching the end of what is, predictably at this point, another overtime thriller. Mo Williams is the hero for Portland this time, with a miraculous steal + three-pointer to put Portland up one late in the fourth after trailing most of the game, and clutch steals by Wes Matthews at the beginning and end of overtime ensure that the Moda crowd goes home happy.

And so am I, home, happy, and exhausted from New York and from basketball. Has there ever been a first round like this?? I don't know how I'm gonna make it through June, let alone how these dudes are gonna do it.

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