Posted Apr 30 2011 10:11AM
MEMPHIS -- They had spent the past decade like a pair of lost souls drifting through space in search of each other.
It had been 10 long, unfulfilled years of fix-ups by friends, pick-ups in bars, one-night stands, blind dates and scrolling through those banks of photos on Match.com to get to this loving embrace.
As the zeroes showed straight across on the scoreboard clock, a beaming Zach Randolph stood in front of the bench, turned to face the crowd and threw open his arms to the place that finally loved him back.
Z-Bo and the Grizzlies, sitting in a tree: W-I-N-N-I-N-G.
It may not have been Westminster Abbey, but this was a royal wedding nonetheless, only with a little less pomp and a lot more circumstance.
It was 2001 when the Grizzlies arrived in Memphis from Vancouver, the very same season when Randolph arrived in the NBA out of Michigan State, and the intervening years produced no shortage of questions about whether either was worth the trouble.
Here then were the answers.
A city that had only tepidly supported the Grizzlies, even earlier in this very season, was steaming and blowing its whistle like a tea kettle at full boil following the 99-91 victory over the Spurs that wrapped up the first playoff series win ever for the franchise and was only the fourth time in history that a No. 8 seed had taken down a No. 1 seed.
A player that been passed around more than a canteen in the desert from Portland to New York to L.A. before landing in Memphis had at long last been the one to quench his thirst for personal success and the town's for validation in the big leagues.
"This means a lot to me," said Randolph after he rumbled to 31 points and 11 rebounds on Friday night. "It has never been like this anywhere else. I was in Portland for most of my career and two other teams for a short stint.
"This city has embraced me. The people here have been great. I feel like I'm from Memphis. I am involved in the community. I am involved with the kids around here. They're family. I think God has blessed me and He has made this work for me. I think this is God's plan for me to be here."
It certainly was the plan of Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins.
"Zach had 26 and 11 the other night in San Antonio and he told me he played a good game," Hollins said. "I told him that I thought he did too, but that tonight he was going to have to be better."
So when Antonio McDyess dropped in a 22-foot jumper with 4:41 left in the game to bring the Spurs all the way back from a 14-point deficit and into an 80-79 lead, Randolph took his work to Everest heights. Just 16 seconds later, his short hook put the Grizzlies back on top and from there he dominated, scoring 13 of his points in the run to the final horn.
"He just delivered every time we threw the ball to him," said teammate Shane Battier. "Everything he threw up went in. Man, that's the kind of guy you want to go to battle with. That's the guy you look at and say, 'I'm glad he's on my team.' I'm glad he's getting the credit. He's a warrior."
Randolph does, in fact, represent the core of the Grizzlies, who are a reflection of Memphis itself, playing a filthy, grimy, dirty, gritty game that is a thing of beauty if your notion of art comes bathed in sweat. He has silk pillow hands at the end of long arms, a bullish demeanor with a child-like smile and a knack for making jumpers from the wing along with some of the most improbable shots from the crowd around the basket that one could ever imagine. Like the Grizzlies, when his path is blocked, he somehow finds a way.
The Spurs were no slouches, a 61-win team during the regular season, yet the Grizzlies mowed them down like a field of spring dandelions. They beat them up close to the basket and they harassed San Antonio's perimeter shooters to the point of distraction. Tim Duncan looked like an old man lost at the mall, while Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker could never quite do enough of their old magic. The NBA's best 3-point shooting team all season was a grisly 5-for-22 in its farewell.
The Grizzlies are a team that is learning what they are and how good they can be and, forget the No. 8 seed, balled-up with confidence they're going to be a ferociously difficult out going forward in the playoffs against Oklahoma City, a team they beat three times in four meetings this season.
"That's just us, it's the way we play," said point guard Mike Conley. "It's been a journey. It's an unbelievable feeling where we're at right now, especially with the core group of guys that have been here over the years when we weren't mentioned at all or on TV or anything and the fans weren't there.
"Now to see where we're at with the fan support, people going crazy, it's an unbelievable atmosphere. I can't put into words how I feel and especially how the city of Memphis feels.
"This is how I always imagined the playoffs to be when I was sitting at home watching on TV the past three years. So when San Antonio came back and took that lead, I knew the crowd wouldn't let us down, we wouldn't let ourselves down and, well, we always had Zach."
A royally entertaining wedding, it's like Z-Bo and the Grizzlies were made for each other.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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