BIRMINGHAM – At first glance, there was nothing about tonight’s NBA G League game between the Birmingham Squadron and Memphis Hustle that seemed particularly “historic.”
It was the seventh meeting between the two clubs since the 2021-22 season. Birmingham, the affiliate of the New Orleans Pelicans, came into the contest with a 6-0 record all-time against the Memphis Grizzlies’ feeder team.
And once the horn sounded on ‘Holiday Celebration” night at Legacy Arena, that record changed to 6-1 as Memphis (6-6) took a 114-109 decision over Birmingham (5-9).
The game was also the next to last meeting of the teams in the 2022 Showcase Cup, the preseason tournament that determines the participants in the championship at the Winter Showcase on December 19-22. Once that champion is crowned in Las Vegas, records for all teams will be reset at 0-0 when they begin a 32-game regular season slate starting on December 27.
“They care and they play together, and they really want it,” Birmingham coach T.J. Saint said of his charges. “You see glimpses all the time. It’s more than glimpses … you might see a stretch of five or six possessions in a row of what a championship team we can be, and I really do think we have the capabilities down the line of doing that in the regular season. There are just a lot of mental errors that we make and it’s a collective thing where it snowballs.
“We’re gonna get there, though. They care and they’re super high character – we have no issues off the court.”
If you follow this team, you probably already know all that. Win, lose or Elam Ending overtime, this bunch goes full tilt from buzzer to buzzer.
And all that is interesting, but here’s where the historic part comes in: the contest marked the 75th anniversary of the first-ever pro roundball meeting between teams representing the Magic City and the Home of the Blues.
On December 8, 1947 – with player/coach Wheeler Flemming pumping in 19 points for the winners – the visiting Birmingham Vulcans trounced the Memphis Legionnaires, 62-43, in a Southern Basketball League game at Fairgrounds Shelby County Arena. It would be the first of four meetings between the clubs before the SPL disbanded a little more than a year later, with Birmingham winning three (including the last, 73-71, played on January 9, 1948).
Yet, while that might be a fun history lesson, the future is now for a couple of teams hoping to finish the 16-game Cup schedule strong.
Birmingham came into the game with the momentum of a 138-135 victory over the Texas Legends on Tuesday, a contest that saw the club set a season high for points, putting up 31.5 more than their average.
Memphis, on the other hand, had its modest two-game winning streak snapped in a 126-112 loss to Mexico City on the same day and hoped to hit the reset button on the road.
Two nights later, both teams put on one heckuva show.
Memphis took the fight to the hosts quickly, racing out to a 7-0 lead before Kira Lewis Jr. hit a jumper to put the Squadron on the board. But Birmingham shots weren’t falling while the Hustle was consistently finding the range, and the visitors got up by as many as 15 late in the frame.
The Squadron stopped the bleeding somewhat before the horn sounded, but after 12 minutes they were staring at a 36-25 deficit.
The second quarter started with a Daeqwon Plowden three that got the Memphis lead down to single digits, and Birmingham slowly chipped away.
A John Petty Jr. layup at 3:59 made it a 49-44 game, and the Squadron was able to pull to within four twice, the last coming when James Kelly Sr. delivered a rim-rattling dunk at the 2:13 mark to make the score 53-49.
The Hustle advantage was 61-55 at the half, making this one either team’s to win with 24 minutes to go.
Kelly Sr. was the only Birmingham player with double digits at the break (14), while Memphis was paced by Kennedy Chandler’s 14 points and 12 from Matt Hurt.
In the third quarter, the Squadron caught up and took flight.
Kelan Martin gave the home side their first lead of the night when he nailed a jumper at 9:22 to make it 65-63, and the squads spent much of the stanza swapping leads.
After frenzied action up and down the court, the quarter ended with Birmingham on top, 85-83.
“We came out at halftime and gave a pick-and-roll coverage we’ve never actually practiced called ‘squeezing,’ where the big guy kinda skins up against his man and we go under to not force the rotation,” Saint explained. “It worked a little bit, but I thought the best part about it was we just stayed consistent on our normal defense and forced some turnovers and got back in it.”
Unfortunately for the Squadron, the Hustle finished what they started in the fourth quarter.
With Birmingham reverting to its first quarter cold shooting Memphis heated up, going on a 16-2 run and turning a nip-and-tuck game into a 107-94 advantage with just over four minutes remaining.
With 48 seconds left Saint’s team had clawed their way back thanks to a 10-0 spurt, trailing just 109-107 and in a decent position to keep their perfect mark against the Hustle intact.
It was 111-109 with 11 seconds remaining, putting the Squadron in a fouling situation.
Charity tosses upped the advantage to 114-109 with eight seconds left, and Birmingham was out of time.
Kenny Lofton Jr. led the winners with a game-high 24 points and nine rebounds, followed by Chandler (23), Hurt (17), Vince Williams Jr. (16) and Dakota Mathias (11).
Martin paced Birmingham with 21 points, Kelly Sr. and Zylan Cheatham each chipped in 20, Lewis Jr. added 14 points and Feron Hunt scored 12.
Memphis won the battle of the boards, 42-34.
“It’s a little different now,” said former UAB player Jordan Swing, who saw 10 minutes of action for the Squadron and remembers the UAB-Memphis college basketball rivalry from his days as a Blazer. “In college it’s a big deal and a fun game. But still, every time you get out there you want to win. It means a lot when you play Memphis. We didn’t get it done today, but we’ll get back to practice and be ready for the next one.”
Birmingham returns to action on Thursday, December 15, when it travels to Lakeland, Florida, to play the Magic. The Squadron ends Showcase Cup play at Memphis on December 17.
The Hustle hits the court again on Saturday when the Texas Legends provide the opposition in Frisco.