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Fran Blinebury

Nick Collison (left) is one of many different bigs the Thunder have used to slow down Zach Randolph.
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Slowly and steadily, Thunder defense suffocates Randolph

Posted May 12 2011 11:36AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- He turns one way with the ball and he's got Kendrick Perkins hissing and spitting and glowering into his face. He turns the other way and there's Serge Ibaka rising up to block his view and his shots.

He tries to take a dribble and wheel into the lane for one of those off balance, squirmy, twisting tries and Nick Collison is coming over to hit him with a sledgehammer blow. He looks to go baseline and it's Nazr Mohammed getting him in a less-than-loving embrace.

Zach Randolph has to feel like he's been dropped into a pit of boa constrictors each time he takes the floor against the Thunder. Slowly, steadily, relentlessly, the grasp gets tighter.

The idea was never to wipe out Z-Bo with one sudden, lethal blow, but to wrap him up, choke him off, get a slithery tail around his throat, a powerful body around his chest and squeeze.

It was that suffocating tactic that limited Randolph to just nine points and seven rebounds in Game 5 and gave the Thunder a crushing 99-72 victory.

It might be tempting to lay the blame for Randolph's ineffectiveness on fatigue or a hangover from the triple-overtime loss the Grizzlies suffered in Game 4. But the truth is that Randolph's diminished productivity is more than just a one-game thing.

Since blitzing the Thunder for 34 points and 10 rebounds in Memphis' shocking win in the series opener, Randolph has found the defensive attention paid to him greater and greater and the going tougher and tougher.

After making 12 of 22 shots in Game 1, Randolph's shooting numbers have been: 2-for-13, 8-for-22, 9-for-25 and 3-for-9.

"Just one of those nights," Randolph said. "Everybody has 'em."

Except it's not just one night. It's getting harder, not easier, for him to operate, and that strikes right at the heart of the Memphis offense.

"We knew going into the series he is one of the best in the league as far as scoring points around the paint and he's also one of the best at getting his own rebounds off his misses and putting them back in," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.

"We wanted to make sure that he feels our bodies and make sure that he sees multiple defenders around him. Our guys have done a good job with that. He's not an easy player to guard. He's very crafty in his ability to score around the paint and he's strong. He's one of the best at doing what he does.

"I thought our bigs did a good job. We're putting fresh bodies against him and our guys have done a good job of fighting him for every position on the floor."

As the series wears on, the goal has been to wear Randolph down or at the very least make him work twice as hard to do anything. Even in the marathon of Game 4, the wave of Thunder defenders took its toll. Randolph was out of gas by the final overtime, unable to finish shots.

Then in Game 5, Z-Bo was almost a zero. He became frustrated, angry and, for all intents and purposes, checked himself out of the game early in the third quarter by committing three fouls in the space of 2:40.

"He got fouled a couple of times and nothing was called and I think that he wanted to just get back," said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. "The way they were pounding and overplaying, I just changed up and started going to other stuff and I think that when you're little bit tired and you can't shoot well, you want to do it the easy way. That's to be expected. But he'll be back on Friday.

"We've won all year long and Zach hasn't had monster games every night. He's obviously a 20 and 10 guy. But we have a team. We've been a team all year long and we'll continue to be a team until this thing is over."

For all of the other weapons they possess -- Mike Conley attacking the basket, O.J. Mayo tossing in 3s, Marc Gasol making that little hook from the lane -- the Grizzlies are really the Grizzlies when Randolph is able to clean up on the offensive glass and score on his nifty inside moves and put-backs.

In a series that they had dominated with offensive rebounding, holding a 74-57 advantage through the first four games, the Grizzlies were hammered 15-8 in Game 5 and Randolph had just one.

When Memphis was still thinking that one more comeback in a series full of them was possible in the second half, Randolph did not make his first field -- or even take his first shot -- of the third quarter until there was just 2:03 left in the period and the Thunder had pushed the lead up to 18.

If he decided to mail in the finish, one can only hope he used Memphis' own hometown carrier, FedEx.

"Embarrassed, that's the right word," Randolph said. "I get frustrated at myself. I couldn't make a shot. I was in the paint. We all missed layups. The ball wouldn't drop for us.

"There will be nights like that. We've got to play hard and just stick together. It's a tough time right now."

This was the first time in the playoffs that the Grizzlies looked like a No. 8 seed who were in over their heads. It is also the first time in the playoffs that the Grizzlies have trailed in a series and now have no room to spare.

"We understand what we have to do," Randolph said. "We can feel the situation."

Nobody more than Z-Bo, who's been given the squeeze.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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