MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Two weeks ago Zach Randolph carried the Memphis Grizzlies out of the second round for the first time in franchise history, averaging 18.4 ppg and 10.8 rpg. Two weeks prior he bludgeoned Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers with nearly 57-percent shooting to rally his team from an 0-2 hole.
T-shirts being sold on downtown’s Main St. read “Fear the Beast,” surrounding a face that is part Grizzly mascot and part Z-Bo. Just as the bandwagon had swelled to capacity in honor of Randolph’s four-year reclamation in Memphis, this headbanded beast can’t even buy a free throw in this quickly-slipping-away Western Conference finals.
The Spurs, with Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner, have done what Griffin and Serge Ibaka could not. They have sedated the beast by suffocation.
“I mean, I’m a decoy, it’s respect. I got the whole team focused on me, two or three guys,” Randolph said after Memphis’ Monday morning shootaround in preparation for tonight’s do-or-die Game 4 at FedExForum (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). “I’ve got to make plays and be a decoy.
“I’m all about winning. If it opens up for me, fine. But if we can win and knock shots down I’ll be happy with that. I’ve just got to do the best I can in picking my spots because the attention is on me. I’ve got a guy in front of me, a guy behind me; [they’re] leaving the guys in the corner and we’ve got to knock down shots. So it’s just about winning with me.”
Sounds like Z-Bo has a lot on his mind. Either that or the Spurs’ defensive strategy is inside it and kicking things around.
Surrounded by defenders virtually each time the ball comes to him on the block, Randolph is missing shots from distances he typically drops with ease. Instead he’s made just 11 of his last 32 field-goal attempts after his ominous 1-for-8, two-point start to the series. Equally if not more disturbing for the career-76.5-percent foul shooter is that he can’t bail himself out at the line, going 7-for-16, including in the last two overtime losses including critical late-game misses.
“What we’ve done is the best job we can,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “We’re just trying to make the bigs work for what they get. They’re very talented, very active. It’s impossible to stop them but we’re going to do the best job we can to limit them.”
The other half of “them” Popovich refers is 7-foot-1 center Marc Gasol, who hasn’t been able to make the Spurs pay for saddling Randolph. Gasol is 18-for-46 from the floor.
After a slow scoring start to the Clippers series, although he shot a high percentage, Randolph averaged 20.8 ppg. Oklahoma City block machine Ibaka made life tough for Randolph, whose shooting percentage dipped to 44.6, but he was highly effective, going for 51 points and 26 rebounds in the final two games of that series.
The Spurs are simply being far more effective than OKC harassing Randolph. They’re packing the paint and welcoming the few Grizz shooters on the roster to fire up jumpers. Quincy Pondexter, 9-for-19 from beyond the arc in the series is on his own. Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless are a combined 6-for-25.
If all that makes for a bleak Memphis outlook, consider that no team has ever won a series after falling behind 3-0. Demoralization can hit swiftly in a Game 4 as the emotional and mental stresses become overwhelming against such steep odds.
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, whose team has improved each season under his guidance, had a message for each of his players as they take the floor tonight.
“The motivation is just to go out and have pride and do whatever you can do,” Hollins said. “If they’re better than you, they’re better than you. But don’t quit and don’t go out there with a quitter’s attitude and just go through the motions; and the game is fairly close and you can walk away and say ‘this happened and that happened, that’s why we didn’t win.’ But if you just tie up your boot straps and reach down inside of you and be who you are and give all you have, and give a little more that you didn’t think you had, then possibilities are out there.
“That’s what it’s about. It’s about the big picture. Because if you give up now in an adverse situation, you’ll give up on life in an adverse situation. You’re trying to prove your character, your integrity and your self-worth. This is how you prove it. You go out and earn it.”