His team had been on his back all night long. Now, with 1:50 left in overtime and the Grizzlies up by five points, Zach Randolph was about to score the last of his 38 points.
Phoenix’s Marcin Gortat had Randolph squared up, preventing a drive to the rim. But Randolph, who scored 16 points in the fourth quarter and OT, wasn’t about to give up the ball. So he drop-stepped time and time again until he finally made his move for real – knocking down a 17-foot fade-away jumper over Gortat’s bald head. A few seconds later, Randolph fouled Gortat at the other end of the court and the FedExForum faithful couldn’t hold back the love any longer.
“Z-Bo, Z-Bo, Z-Bo!" they chanted.
Coach Lionel Hollins couldn’t have agreed more.
“He carried us,” Hollins said of Randolph’s NBA-best 14th double-double, this one a 38-point, 22-rebound effort that was just off his career highs of 43 and 25. “All season long, Zach has been terrific. He’s healthy. His spirit is good.”
We remember what this is like, don’t we? This Z-Bo looked like the Z-Bo who was selected to the 2010-2011 All-NBA Third Team and averaged 22.2 points and 10.8 rebounds in a playoff run that stopped just short of the Western Conference Finals. He would lift those step-back jumpers into the air like he was launching parachutes. More times than not, they had soft, perfect, landings.
“It reminded me of two years ago Zach,” center Marc Gasol said with a grin. “He had the little bounce, like a boxer. He has the bounce and he has the eyebrows. It’s just something you see in his face when he’s feeling it. It brought up some memories, that’s for sure.”
For Randolph, too.
“I was feeling good … the best I’ve felt,” he said after the Grizzlies’ 108-98 win on Tuesday, Dec. 4, over the Suns.
Truth is, he has looked pretty good this whole season; he is averaging 17.7 points and 13.3 rebounds – second only to Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao (15.4 through Dec. 4) – through a franchise-best 13-3 start.
It has been a long road back from New Year’s Day in Chicago when Randolph tore his right medial collateral ligament (MCL). Although Randolph played 28 regular-season games, he was a mere shadow of the player who had endeared himself to Memphis fans.
And it wasn’t just that his numbers were way down (11.6 points and 8.0 rebounds). It was that he knew he couldn’t do what he had always done and everyone else knew it, too. He was a boxer without his knockout punch or his stamina.
Now, he is a main reason the Grizzlies look like legitimate contenders.
“Zach has always been a good player,” said Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry. “If you go back and look, he has always been 20-10 since he walked into the league. He’s just a determined guy. … I’m not sure where (the Grizzlies’) weakness is. If someone would tell me, I would like to know.”
Certainly, it doesn’t rest with Z-Bo. Ask Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins. Ask him if Z-Bo bluffs.
“In some aspects it’s fun and in some it’s not,” Denver’s Kenneth Faried said of opposing Randolph. “It’s not fun because he’s going to keep hitting you and keep going.”
Said the Los Angeles Lakers’ Antawn Jamison: “He’s not the flashiest guy in the world, not the most athletic. But you know when you’re playing against him you better bring your hard hat. He can create scoring opportunities off of rebounds. That’s his identity. You don’t have to call plays for him. I love him to death.”
Not plays, per se, but when Randolph gets going like he did against the Suns, his teammates know he wants the ball. There is no guessing about that.
“He’s a little bit vocal,” Quincy Pondexter said with a laugh.
“When I get that little hop in my step, that means I’m going,” Randolph said. “I felt like my old self tonight.”
Healthy, spirited and on any given night capable of carrying his team across the finish line.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. He and Jon Albright host the Jon & Don Show on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays.