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NBA Playoffs 2014: Where Zach Randolph's strength fails him: against the Thunder's post defense

Few teams can contain Zach Randolph effectively, but the Oklahoma City Thunder do as good a job as any team.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

There's no player that uses a greater percentage of plays while he's on the court for the Grizzlies than Zach Randolph. According to, Randolph has a usage percentage of 26.1%, higher than any of his teammates with Mike Conley coming in second at a close-but-not-too-close 24.6%.

What that's saying is, Randolph is a big part of the offense. The usage percentage stat is calculated with field goal attempts, free throw attempts and turnovers, and Randolph gathers a lot of them. You probably knew that already, what with how often the Grizzlies feed 50 in the post. With 260 lbs of grizzly bear to his frame, Z-Bo is a beast in there. The Grizzlies only give him the ball so much because he keeps scoring it.

The plan isn't going to change in the playoffs, where the Grizzlies have a first-round matchup with the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. But... you look at how the Thunder have dealt with Randolph in their four games against him this season, and then you start to get worried. He's shot a lowly 37.1% from the field against them, and while he had a good number of free throw attempts to offset that some, he still averaged 16.5 points per game against the Thunder which is marginally below his average for the season.

Those stats might not mean much, coming from a four-game sample size. Kendrick Perkins and Marc Gasol each missed a game, and Gasol also made his return from the MCL sprain that had kept him out nearly two months in a game against the Thunder. Four games is few enough that injuries, fatigue, foul trouble and cold streaks can bungle up the numbers significantly. What's more worrying is the Thunder's game-plan against Randolph, which has stayed constant in its core principles and has worked too well in stopping him.

To negate Randolph's bulk, the Thunder will rely upon the best attributes of their own big men: length and activity. Serge Ibaka might be the best shot-blocker in the league and the Thunder are excellent at getting more arms in the way by timing help defense to come right as the shot goes up. Perhaps most importantly, the Thunder's bigs match Randolph in strength.

I'm hesitant to say that the Thunder bigs win in strength outright, but none of Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Steven Adams yield ground easily. They're strong enough to withstand most of Randolph's onslaught of back-downs, and robbing him of the sumo wrestling advantage might be a win in itself.

Randolph is strong enough to win most of his battles in the low post through brute strength, but when that's not there, he's relegated to counter moves that aren't as dominant. He has an effective drop step going either way and a decent up-and-under move, both benefitted by Randolph's condor arms, but those don't work as well as just clobbering guys does. With his speed and at his height, those moves are easier to pick apart. It doesn't take someone of elite physique or technique to keep up with Randolph's drop step, and the up-and-under move can easily be blocked or contested by taller defenders.

This drop step doesn't cleanly get Randolph past Adams, and for extra measure, Ibaka times his help defense perfectly to come over and block Randolph's shot right as he spins into it.


When he gets away from the low block and closer to the empty high post area between the wing and the short corner, Randolph relies so heavily on a jab step jumper that I don't really know why defenders still give up space to the jab. Most do, maybe worried about the generally non-threatening face-up drive Randolph mixes in once in a while. The jab step jumper works well for Randolph, but its effectiveness wanes against the Thunder. Serge Ibaka is great at contesting jumpers because arms, and both Perkins and Collison have good-to-great instincts on crowding and defending those type of face-up jumpers.

Based on reputation, you'd think Perkins would be the most exploitable one away from the rim. If there's one thing he does well, however, it's getting up in guys' grill. Perkins is able to crowd Z-Bo, who can't really beat him off the dribble, and eventually contest a difficult fadeaway look here.


When he's stopped in the post, Randolph is forced to rely on playing off of his teammates. He shoots the spot-up jumper from midrange efficiently and sees shot opportunities from lurking around the rim, whether off teammates driving or his own offensive rebounds.

That nature of scoring expedites a modest output that's noticeably different from the much more dominating production Randolph can generate from the post. Those other sources of points can supplement his overall scoring, but for Z-Bo to be Z-Bo, the bulk of scoring has to come from the post. 54.1% of Randolph's offense comes from post-ups, per Synergy Sports Technology. You can imagine how things change for him when the post-up fails.

The key for Randolph against the Thunder will be knowing the individual weaknesses of the different players he faces. Steven Adams, still in his rookie season in the NBA, is the work-in-progress or the guy with the bulls-eye. He's strong as a bull and shares Perkins' mean streak. On the other hand, his technique is still coming along. Adams falls for jab steps the most of the Thunder's bigs, and experienced post players can catch him leaning too hard one way or another to beat him with a move. He still gives up deep post position prior to the catch, and fouls like he knows he's not going to play anyway. That might be a problem in exploiting him, by the way – if Scott Brooks decides that Adams is too raw to help against the Grizzlies' frontcourt, he's very good at talking himself into playing the other guys instead.

Speaking of the other guys, they have their own weaknesses too. If pump fakes faked guys out on a scale from 1-10, Ibaka gets 12'd by every pump fake. Perk is the one who fouls a lot. I want to tell you Collison is perfect, but he's the least physically imposing (he's still strong and he makes up for the rest by playing hard, though!) and will probably lose some of the grinder battles to Z-Bo.

Things could easily turn out the way they did in the regular season, with Randolph held to 40%-or-less shooting and mostly limited in his offensive presence. If the Thunder can manage that, they'll be well on their way to winning this series by cancelling one of the Grizzlies' primary scoring options.

For the Grizzlies to prevent that happening, they'll have to be extremely diligent in their preparation for this series. The Thunder have a very sturdy defensive frontcourt, and trying to get past them has to be done carefully. The best way for Randolph to hold his ground against the Thunder's post defenders is by attacking each defender deliberately and not backing away. There's value too in wearing his opponents away over a seven-game series and getting to the foul line.

This is probably a series where Mike Conley and Marc Gasol's shots go up, which might be a plan for success most times anyway. Z-Bo still needs to be a part of it for the Grizzlies to have their best chance of winning, however – this number is shaky, but in games where Randolph scores less than his season average of 17.4 points, the Grizzlies are 19-39. That's a win percentage (48.7%) more than 10% lower than their season win percentage (61.0%). Few teams have the staff to put up a sustained fight against Randolph, and the Thunder are one of them.