When it comes to Zach Randolph, in Memphis, in the playoffs, sometimes “hero ball” takes on a different meaning. Sometimes it means wrestling on the floor with a Kia pitchman and dunk-crazy ingenue power forward. Sometimes it means responding a minute later with a hoop-and-harm against the same opponent, which sends you careening into baseline photographers and results in your crazy teammate standing over you, flexing his arms, and then getting up to pound your chest in front of the opposing bench. Sometimes it means exhorting the home crowd while the same crazy teammate pops your jersey for you, all after a second technical foul sends you to the locker room, but with 23 points on a nifty 8-12 shooting and a series-ending, revenge-securing victory in your back pocket.
Welcome to a “grit-and-grind” Grizzlies playoff run. It can get a little rough.
Friday night at FedExForum — bleeding into Saturday morning — was part exorcism, part resurrection. Evil spirits lingering from last spring's crushing bookend losses to the same Los Angeles Clippers team were put away. A team down 0-2 to start the series won four games in a row to close it out. For the first time in league history, a team came back from 0-2 to win four straight games all by double digits.
But it was also a resurrection for Randolph. After the All-Star break, Randolph looked pretty ordinary, with his 43 percent shooting and inability to string together double-doubles in his accustomed fashion. After two games in Los Angeles, Randolph was averaging 13 points and 6 rebounds and there were a string of presumptive eulogies for his Memphis career. Over the final four games of the series: 25 points and 9 rebounds a game on 57 percent shooting. In these four wins, the Grizzlies outscored the Clippers by an average of 18 points a game when Randolph was on the floor.
Memphis' love for Randolph had never really faded. He was always just a blue collar player in the blue collar town. But these four games stoked the flames. A loud “Z-BO” chant as the incorrigible favorite son exited, with 1:57 to play and the Grizzlies up by 15 points, was the hottest those flames have burned since the spring of 2011, when Randolph forced a Game 7 against Thunder, against whom a rematch now awaits.Kevin Arnovitz, covering the series for ESPN.com, tweeted in the first quarter: “The crowd in MEM gets so giddy when the ball is delivered into the post to Randolph. Never heard anything like it since Shaq.”
This was a Z-Bo kind of game. A game with seven technicals and two ejections — Chris Paul joined Randolph for an early shower late in the fourth. A play-by-play sheet is little help in piecing this together. Nowhere in the official record are phrases like “scrapping on the floor, possible choke” or “flying clothesline foul” or “Joey Crawford doing Joey Crawford stuff.” (Randolph on his second tech: “I was exchanging words with the bench and Joey ... he don't play.")
The final five minutes or so ascended — or descended? Is this a Rorschach test? — to a realm beyond immediate comprehension. From my perch in the upper media section, I lost track of what was happening, but Rick Trotter, the Grizzlies public address announcer, sitting courtside, confessed afterward that he wasn't even sure at some point.
But Memphis likes chaos and color. Toughness and theatricality. This is a town raised on wrestling and rock-and-roll and raconteurs. Where Sputnik Monroe and Dewey Phillips and Tony Allen are part of a treasured continuum. This was a game with 18,119 waving towels that read “We Don't Bluff” only because “I'll Beat Your Ass” is a bridge too far. This is a town where the mascot unfurled a banner that read “FINISH THEM” in the fourth quarter and a spontaneous chant of “Whoop That Trick” filled an arena. It's a little crazy. We know that.
And this game was crazy in so many ways, some of them related to actual basketball. The Clippers, to their credit, had a game plan, resulting in a deeply strange first half in which the Grizzlies shot 30 free-throws and Mike Conley and Marc Gasol combined for more than twice as many personal fouls (5) as field-goal attempts (2).
“I want to give credit to the Clippers,” Lionel Hollins said afterward. “Tonight they came out and threw everything at us. They pressed, they zoned, they committed hard fouls. They really competed.”
With Blake Griffin limited by his high-ankle sprain — he came off the bench for nine points in 14 minutes — and the conventional lineups and approach increasingly ineffective anyway, the Clippers changed it up. They doubled and fronted Randolph and, especially, Marc Gasol aggressively, which had the desired effect of funneling shots to the Grizzlies' wings. In the first half, Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, Jerryd Bayless, and Quincy Pondexter combined for 25 field-goal attempts; Randolph, Gasol, Mike Conley combined for six.
The Clippers played small, as expected. Chris Paul — 28 points on 11-16 shooting, 8 assists, zero turnovers — was brilliant, as expected. And they finally got a big, big game from one of their wing shooters, with Matt Barnes scoring a game-high 30 points off the bench, shooting 11-14 from the floor and 6-7 from beyond arc. This all gummed up the Grizzlies' established style and kept the Clippers close — down three after the first quarter, down five at the half.
“We took too long to come to the fight,” Paul said after the game. “We waited until Game 6 to match their intensity.”
The Grizzlies took a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter and seemed on the verge of putting the game away, but even then the Clippers crawled back, cutting a 15-point deficit down to six with a 10-1 run in the middle of the quarter.
The Clippers' born-of-desperation plan, and Paul's brilliance, and Barnes' shot-making kept the Clippers close in the face of stiff headwinds and an ailing star, but in the end the tipping point may have come down to secondary players making outside shots, an area that wasn't supposed to favor the Grizzlies. But there they were: Despite Barnes' explosion, the Grizzlies beat the Clippers, if barely, from the three-point line, hitting 8-19 (42%) to the Clippers' 7-20 (35%).
Despite 14 points on 16 field-goal attempts from Caron Butler, the Clippers didn't really get a second sidekick to pair with Barnes. Jamal Crawford, Chauncey Billups, and Eric Bledsoe combined to shoot a brutal 1-10 in this season-ending game for the Clippers. For the Grizzlies, by contrast, clutch threes came in succession: In the late third, when Barnes backed away to deny an entry pass to Gasol, Quincy Pondexter rose up for a three that pushed the Grizzlies lead from six back up to 9. Early in the fourth, with a defender again sagging to ward off a post feed, Tony Allen drove baseline rather than taking the jumper, finding Conley open on the opposite wing for a three that pushed the lead from 10 to 13.
Then, dual daggers later in quarter — Conley from the elbow and Jerryd Bayless from the corner with threes on back-to-back possessions that, bracketing a Butler jumper, pushed the Grizzlies lead from six to 10 with under four minutes to play. From there, the Grizzlies ran down the shot clock on consecutive possessions, until the outcome was sealed and the game melted down into a mess of fouls and ejections — first Paul, who paid his respects to Randolph and Tayshaun Prince before exiting, and then, 32 seconds of game-time later, Randolph.
In the middle of it all was Tony Allen, playing arguably his best game of the season: Attacking the offensive glass, forcing turnovers, reading the defense with quick cuts, purposeful drives, and sharp passes on his way to 19 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals, and zero turnovers.
“Tony Allen was unbelievable all across the board,” Hollins said.
At the end, it was Allen and Randolph sitting side by side, representing the team in the post-game press conference. If Marc Gasol is the team's best two-way player and Mike Conley the on-court captain, it's Randolph and Allen who have defined the personality of this Grizzlies team.
Asked about looking up from the floor to see Allen standing over him, flexing his arms in appreciation, Randolph smiled: “I enjoy him. He gets the team going. He gets me pumped up. That's grit and grind right there.”
“When Zach Randolph is out there being a man amongst boys. It's only fuel to the fire right there because he is a monster,” Allen said in turn.
Allen's a free agent this summer and Randolph's hefty contract will always make him a source of speculation. Though there's a very good chance both players are back next season, there are no guarantees beyond the moment. And, for Memphians who've grown to love this team — and particularly these players — so fiercely, that moment will now last a while longer.
Now, these demons expelled, the Grizzlies move on — too quickly — to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder, without star guard Russell Westbrook, are suddenly much more vulnerable. The series tips off a noon Sunday, in Oklahoma City.