My favorite Zach Randolph moment of this year came in Game 2 of the first round series against Portland. Leading by 13, the Grizzlies were content to #feed50 to chew up clock and wear down the Blazers' interior. Nothing fancy, just basketball.
This clip comes courtesy of a user on the NBA subreddit who titled his link, aptly, "Don't Mess with Z-Bo." After getting bellied off his post position, he gathers the ball and pauses to let LaMarcus Aldridge absorb the gravity of his mistake. He reposts, backs LMA into the paint, and scores — child's play. The schooling spurs his teammates into a lock-down defensive possession, and they force a shot clock violation that sends the crowd (and Marc Gasol) into frenzy. Game, Grizzlies.
That play typifies Zach Randolph, not just for 2014-15, but in how he has described the Tao of grit-n-grind since the Playoff dam broke in 2011. (And he was the one who broke it.) If Tony Allen is the Grizzlies' lunatic field marshall, Zach Randolph is the calm overseer, the aging but unquestionable Supreme Commander of Grind.
The Year in Z-Bo
You'd be forgiven for not remembering much about Zach's year. Mike Conley's face and Tony Allen's theatrics took center stage in the playoffs. Marc Gasol's free agency story will dominate the summer. His regular season was rather par for the course; he didn't sniff All-Star honors and played only 71 games, his fewest as a Grizzly barring the ankle injury year of 2011-12. His 2014-15 highlight reel includes as many out-of-character flurries — a pair of Hail Mary's made, a pair of coast-to-coast crossover drives — as trademark Z-Bounds, post-ups, and silky fade-aways.
Yet as he enters his twilight years, Zach's engine is tuned and running smooth as ever. He improved in several statistical categories this year - better shooting efficiency, more defensive rebounds per game and total RPG, a better steal rate, fewer turnovers and fewer personal fouls per game. He even posted his best PER since before the ankle injury, a 19.5 — second only to Marc Gasol.
Courtesy of stats.nba.com.
Randolph's import became most obvious when the Grizzlies were without him. After starting the season 21-5, Memphis went 4-5 during Randolph's nine-game injury stretch. On his return, they won 12 of their next 14. The Grizzlies' offense simply has less gravity without Zach in the middle, and sometimes they have themselves to blame for going away from him. In Game 4 against Golden State, Zach was 5-8 in the first half. In the second half, he got just two attempts, and he missed both. The Grizzlies offense shifted (or was forced to shift, to credit GSW) to the outside as they scraped to stay in the game. Zach became a -21 plus/minus drag clinging to the hull of the boat.
The Postseason and Beyond
This game in particular, and the result of the Warriors series, raises recurring and uncomfortable questions about Memphis' contend-ibility. Can a team win a championship in this day and age with an Old Basketball power forward, one who can barely jump? One whose midrange game is fading, and for whom three-pointers are a cosmic event? It's bad math to trade twos for threes against the Warriors, Rockets, and Clippers of the world — you will end up playing from behind, and it'll be damn near impossible to come back.
You can take comfort in the fact that Zach bullied Portland's All-Star stretch four, Aldridge, into submission. But it's little comfort when you remember that Wes Matthews, their premier perimeter threat, was out with injury. The Blazers faced the same problem against Memphis that Memphis faces against, well, errrbody. Without threatening shooters to space the floor, Zach's effectiveness is limited and he becomes the singularity on which smart coaches (like Kerr and Popovich) can focus their defenses.
Still, Zach will do his thing. They don't call him Old Man River for nothing. The Front Office's job now is the same as it has been: surround him with shooters, retain his brother-from-another-mother, and continue to #feed50. Z-Bo's twilight may be accelerated by new age basketball, by wiry guards and stretch bigs that have no conscience from three. But on the statue they build of Zach Randolph in front of FedExForum — hopefully carved in stone relief like an ancient, armor-skinned Trilobite — the inscription will read: "Don't Mess with Z-Bo."
How can we forget these moments?