“I’ve been through it,” says veteran forward Zach Randolph on the tough road ahead for his Memphis Grizzlies team. “It ain’t easy.”
The first thing that strikes you about the young Grizzlies is the confidence and much of it stems from Randolph. During their five-game losing streak around the All-Star break the onlookers and analysts that had predicted the Grizzlies to follow the formula of yet another lost campaign began dusting off their “I-told-you-so” diatribes. That was where the Grizzlies would fall off the cliff. That was where they would stumble. Down the stretch and out of their surprising perch in the middle of the playoff picture. It was to be the end.
And it happened – sort of – only there hasn’t been the freefall that killed most Grizzlies teams before them. Much of that has to do with mindset and Randolph has finally shown signs of leadership. As the oldest and most experienced player on the team (does Jamaal Tinsley count?) it was an unavoidable responsibility but the new and unexpected role as team leader fits him better than most figured. There is new fight in Randolph after being traded from the Los Angeles Clippers to Memphis last summer (his fourth team in as many years) and a renewed focus is evident. Before that his trade out of New York to L.A. came as a shock to him as well. It all added up to a reality check.
“I know I can play the game of basketball,” says Randolph. “I’ve been through a lot. I talk to the young guys and I relate to the young guys. I’m just being vocal and leading by example.”
Thus, the seeds of doubt do not grow in this version of the Grizz locker room, even if it still exists in the front office. The strong word is that team brass anticipated the slide and wondered if O.J. Mayo (17.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.2 APG), their prize draft pick of nearly two years ago, was the man to get them over the hump. Over the doubt.
“Defensively (I) really get after it,” says Mayo of his role. “I really try to keep guys involved and keep (their) confidence high, keep the team together and don’t let the adversity pull us apart. Stay strong and get out of this thing together.”
Will it be enough? The Grizz certainly hope so, especially since the strong word is that the Golden State Warriors rejected a trade offer out of Memphis that reportedly would have sent Mayo and busted second overall draft pick Hasheem Thabeet to the Dubs in exchange for Monta Ellis (the Grizzlies will face the Warriors twice in March. Yum.). The Allen Iverson experiment blew up in everybody’s face. Deciding whether to move out or retain the versatile Rudy Gay (20.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG) has been a back room debate for a while. Randolph was written off by half the league as a supremely gifted but undesirable character. Thabeet has since been demoted to the D-League. The team is crazy young with an average of roughly 2.5 years experience including four rookies. There were a dozen built-in excuses for the Grizzlies to splinter this season but they did not, a big a change as any from previous seasons.
So to say the pre-game locker room mood prior to their contest against the Toronto Raptors on February 17 was calm isn’t enough. It wasn’t a forced cool or the cruel drawl of eventuality, but rather a been-there-done-that vibe that spoke more to lessons learned than open wounds. After all, the team has rebounded admirably from an early season seven-game slide that threatened to bury the campaign right out of the gate. Since then they’ve pretty much owned the Portland Trailblazers and beat the Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers. They would have beat the Lakers twice if not for a pair of missed free throws from Mayo and a game-winning three-pointer by Kobe Bryant in the dying seconds of a 99-98 home loss. Since that nasty November they have gone on six streaks of three or more games and the five-game skid was their first prolonged struggle since the top of the schedule.
“We’ve been here before,” says Mayo. “We’ve been where no one expected anything of us. We’ve been to where people thought real high of us as a team that’s turned this thing around and have a chance to go to the playoffs and have a pretty nice seed. Now we’re .500 and we’ve got to continue to work hard and not listen to what’s around us. Just believe in this locker room and go out and play hard.”
The Toronto game is important because it was a crossroads moment for the franchise – sink into the realm of expectation or rise as a playoff contender in the bruising western conference. The Raptors had won nine straight home games coming into the match and eight of their last 10 overall, another team making a name for itself in the slice and dice NBA. 10 lead changes and 13 ties later the two teams were battling in the crunch. First there was a late Mayo three to help send the game to overtime. There was Randolph playing with five fouls for the fourth quarter and extra frame and keeping steady enough to continue his 24-point, 11-rebound assault. There was Gay driving in the daggers down the stretch with eight straight points to seal the victory. And there they were, the three new faces of the franchise and the biggest reasons why the Grizz are good.
For Randolph (20.4 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 49.4% FG) Memphis is a sort of revival stop. The young veteran was written off as a talented problem by many after behavioral questions dogged him while playing with the Trailblazers. Stints with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers were spotty and did little to change the perception of Randolph as an overpaid knuckler.
“I’m trying to take it to that next level,” says Randolph.
Randolph has had four streaks of scoring 20 or more points in at least three straight games including an eight-gamer where he averaged nearly 23 points a game. Compare that to his season average of about 20 points per night and there isn’t much difference, but the key is dependability. Randolph hasn’t exploded. In fact, he has scored 30 or more just six times this season and before dropping 32 points and 25 rebounds on his old Knicks team to finish February he hadn’t dropped 30 in over two months. However, he has started in every game he has played for the Grizzlies, the first time he has ever done that for a team in a season. To side, the last time he played anywhere close to a full schedule was during his 2003-04 tour of duty when he played 81 games and started in all but one. Health, happiness and production have not only helped to re-establish his impact but they have allowed Randolph to develop his leadership skills as well. The Grizzlies roster is full of youngsters who clearly feel they can lean on him as a veteran presence, a dimension to Z-Bo that did not exist at his other NBA stops. It is maturity more than anything that helped pull it all together and the league recognized it by selecting him as a first-time All-Star this season. According to Randolph Memphis has a lot to do with it.
“It’s getting in a good situation,” says Randolph. “I’m in a good situation now. We got some great young guys who have a lot of talent.”
The Portland Trailblazers of a couple seasons ago were the forefathers to this bunch. A 12-game winning streak in 2007-08 wasn’t enough to get them into the postseason that year but the signs were there and it set the stage for the development of its young stars and a team fast-becoming a perennial playoff contender. Hovering at around .500, unable to string together wins and dipping in and out of the playoff positioning have the Grizz facing a similar scenario, essentially making this a building block, role-defining year for the franchise.
“It’s just a little adversity in the midst of the season,” says Mayo. He knows time is running out to make a final push in the tough western conference. “Hard work got us to where we are and hard work can get us out of what we’re in. Some people call it a slump but they’ve got so many names for it. We just have to come out and work hard and play through it.”
But it won’t be easy.