Every coach who has guided occasional troublechild Zach Randolph through his 10-year NBA career has felt what Memphis Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley experienced Saturday night at the FedExForum.
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Here’s the scenario:
Game 3, Western Conference first round, No. 1 seed San Antonio vs. No. 8 seed Memphis. Series tied 1-1, Grizzlies getting first playoff win ever in Game 1 at San Antonio after being swept three times to go 0-12.
Now the Grizzlies are trying to get their first home playoff victory, and they lead 88-86 in the final 45 seconds with the shot clock five seconds from expiring.
The ball ends up in Randolph’s hands. He’s a power forward who at one time in his career shot too many 3-pointers no matter what uniform he wore. It drove coaches crazy that somebody 6-foot-9, 260 pounds with the vertical of an insurance salesman playing noon ball at the Y thought he had a green light from deep.
But on this night, in this case, with the shot clock about to expire, he had to shoot. Which sent Heisley, who just gave Randolph a new four-year, $71 million contract a few days ago, gasping for air.
"When ‘Z-Bo’ hit that 3-pointer, I thought everyone around me was going to have a heart attack," Heisley said. "I went, ‘Noooo, noooo!’ when he shot that thing, but when it went in, I said, ‘Yesss!!!’ "
Heisley wasn’t the only one stunned. Spurs forward and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, who always plays with a bemused look, couldn’t believe Randolph launched the darn thing.
"I didn’t assume that was in his arsenal at that point of the game," Duncan said. "I leaned back and tried to make sure there wasn’t a quick big-to-big roll, but he hit a three from that range. It was a great shot."
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said he knew Randolph was going to shoot the ball as soon as he touched it.
Center Marc Gasol said he had the most perfect view of all when Randolph’s shot swished.
"I was standing under the goal trying to get the rebound," Gasol said. "Zach’s shot was nothing but net."
By the way, Randolph is 9 for 45 for the season in 3-point shooting. That’s exactly 20 percent. That’s not very good at all.
And yet the least surprised guy of all was Randolph, who scored 25 points for the second time in the first three games of this series after abusing the Spurs for an average of 23 points and 14.8 rebounds in four regular-season games.
"I practice that shot," Randolph said. "I stay after practice and get extra shooting. When that shot left my hand, I thought it was good."
The fact that Randolph was the hero of the day — and the way he did it — was appropriate. It was another confirmation of how someone who fairly or unfairly got a reputation for being a selfish player, a bad teammate and an immature person has turned around his career.
When Randolph came to Memphis two seasons ago, he’d averaged a double-double for three straight years as part of four different teams. He spent his first six seasons in Portland, where he did some knucklehead things, as some young players will do.
Most of the time, his game seemed all about him. Grizzlies assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, a teammate of Randolph with the Trail Blazers, remembered him as, "A black hole. He’s way better now."
He happened to end up in Memphis because the Clippers wanted to clear cap space to draft Blake Griffin. Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, once a heady point guard for Dr. Jack Ramsey’s Bill Walton-led Trail Blazers back in the ’70s, didn’t anticipate any problems when he got Randolph.
"On some of the teams he played on, he had to score because there wasn’t a lot of talent," Hollins said.
Hollins also respected the fact that Randolph did have a sweet outside shooting stroke at mid-range, so he and Randolph came to an understanding that taking threes was acceptable in certain situations.
Last season, Randolph averaged 20.8 points and 11.7 rebounds as Memphis improved its win total by 16 games to 40. This year, there was a six-game improvement, good enough to get in the playoffs, as he averaged 20.1 points and 12.2 rebounds.
A year ago, he made the Western Conference All-Star team. This year, he didn’t. He didn’t complain about it, didn’t whine. Instead, he beat the heck out of the Clippers’ Griffin ("I don’t think Blake Griffin is better than me," Randolph said) and Minnesota’s Kevin Love — the NBA’s youth movement poster boys who were each in the All-Star Game — every time he faced them.
Off the court, he’s become a model citizen. He’s connected with the city of Memphis. At Christmas, he dresses up as "Z-Bo Claus" and pays light bills for hundreds of financially strapped Memphians.
"There was a lot of scrutiny when I came to Memphis, but it’s great the way the fans and the community have taken me in," Randolph said. "I’ve matured as a player."
You rarely get a rise out of him, even when he catches an elbow in the side of the head. But just before the start of the playoffs, he was genuinely hurt when ESPN.com columnist Rick Reilly wrote about the Grizzlies, "Never pick a team with Zach Randolph on it. He has an extra punk chromosome."
"Why would he say that?" Randolph said. "He doesn’t know me."
So, what’s Randolph’s solution? Lawsuit? Pop Reilly in the mouth?
"No, I just go out and play my game," Randolph said.
There he was Saturday, 26 feet away with the game on the line, just playing his game.
"You know, I’m 29 years old, and I feel like I’m getting better," he said. "God has a plan for everybody. He worked this out for me."