SAN ANTONIO — It was early in the third quarter when Zach Randolph simply did the kind of thing that he does.
Mike Conley had driven into the teeth of the Spurs defense and had his layup attempt pop out. So there was Randolph, all 260 pounds and city-block wide of him of him, rising up out of the crowd in the paint to tap the ball back into the basket. It was notable only because Randolph had taken seven previous shots and not made a single one.
Z-Bo had been Z-B000000.
When itwas finally over, Randolph had just those two points to his name, which meant that he was outscored by all but two players on the Spurs’ 12-man active roster — and that’s using the term quite loosely, since Tracy McGrady hasn’t truly been relevant in half a decade. It took Aussie Patty Mills, cuddly as a koala, just 66 seconds off the bench to pop in a 3-pointer and move ahead of Randolph on the day’s scoring list.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining the ugly 105-83 thumping the Grizzlies took from the Spurs and why Randolph chose to enter the post-game locker room and express regrets to his teammates.
“He tried to apologize first off, and we wouldn’t accept that,” said the point guard Conley. “We said, it’s not you, it’s all of us.”
There were so many things wrong with how the Grizzlies came out and played the opener of the first Western Conference finals game in franchise history that Z-Bo might as well have been holding a bucket to catch the water when the dam broke.
Tony Parker merely took the ball almost from the opening tip and drove it anyplace he wanted toward the Memphis basket, finishing at the rim and stabbing in mid-range jumpers. The Spurs’ wing men set up residence in either corner and all they had to do was wait for the ball to find them for open shots. The Spurs finished the day making 14 of their 29 attempts from deep, setting a franchise playoff record for 3-pointers. It was hardly the kind of performance you might have expected from the No. 1-rated defense in the NBA during regular season and more like playing a game of keep-away with a class of kindergartners.
“We didn’t play well,” said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. “I mean, it’s not anything specific.”
However, it can specifically be said that Grizzlies will be done if Randolph doesn’t even bother to show up. Z-Bo and his partner Marc Gasol punished the Spurs with their inside game two years ago when the Grizzlies became just the second No. 8 seed in history to knock off a No. 1 seed.
But that was a different Spurs team, one that was not as healthy, not nearly as deep and not as remotely capable of coming at Randolph with the overwhelming force of a tsunami.
“They were disrupting my rhythm,” Randolph said. “It was just one of those nights. I played like I did against the Clippers in L.A.”
These are not the Clippers and their passing acquaintance with defense, an entire operation based on gambling for steals and trying to run for dunks. These are not the shorthanded Thunder, relying on Kevin Durant to run the offense, make every decision, all of the shots and wax the court between games.
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, Tiago Splitter was a rookie who did not get off the bench for the first three games. In the opener this time, he teamed with Boris Diaw to constantly front Randolph in the post to deny him the ball. In 2011, the Spurs tried to guard Randolph with 6-foot-9, 37-year-old Antonio McDyess. Now they are younger, taller, deeper.
And on the occasions the ball made it into Z-Bo’s hands, he was swarmed by Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Parker — anybody who was within reach to slap and poke at the ball. The Spurs figured that if Randolph was going to use his physicality to try to beat them up with his work on the inside, they were going to try to beat him to the punch by keeping a defender or three on him and delivering the first body blows.
It wasn’t only a case of Randolph missing shots. It was the failure of the Grizzlies to get him the ball to take enough shots, certainly more than eight.
“They’re were able to get into a denial position so early in the clock to where it was tough to get him the ball,” Conley said. “And when we did get him the ball, they were trapping and weren’t allowing him to shoot the ball. They were making other guys make shots and take shots.
“They are not the first team to front him. But they seem to do a very good job of it to the point where you saw the front, we swing it to the high post and normally we get a high-low and get Zach alone. But it seemed that everybody was in the right position at the right time. They did a really good job of scouting that. So now we got to find ways around it.”
Because grit and grind only works if you have your grinder.
In an age when offenses are surging with rule changes and the prevalence of the 3-ball, it is one thing to limit opponents to 89 points a game as the Grizzlies did during the regular season and have a measure of success. But this isn’t the 1990s with the Rockets and Knicks mired in a death struggle every time down the court. You’ve got to be able to put points on the board and when your top playoff scorer at 19.7 a game comes up nearly 18 short of his average the task is overwhelming.
“Look,” said the Grizzlies Tony Allen, “we all know we’re a different team with our big man going.”
No apologies needed. Just Z-Bo over Z-B0000000.