MEMPHIS — It had to feel like throwback night for Memphis Grizzlies fans, even if only for just one night.
Their beloved Grizzlies attacked the San Antonio Spurs from the start, with Grit and Grind mainstays Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol doing their physical best to beat the Spurs into submission.
“Z-Bo” chants rained down on Randolph before halftime. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich yanked his starters 52 seconds into the third quarter, the result of a quick start for home team in a game that always serves as a must-win when you’re facing a 2-0 deficit in a playoff series.
But the Grizzlies dug into the vault to make sure their future included at least one more trip to San Antonio, riding their old horses and point guard Mike Conley, to an emotional 105-94 Game 3 win.
Take that for data, as Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said after his team’s loss in Game 2.
In this era of space and pace pretty ball, the Grizzlies turned the clock back to the bruising brand that has sustained them for years. Randolph and Gasol inside, the new wrinkle of Gasol outside and the lightning fast Conley as the unquestioned head of this snake.
When the No. 8 seed Grizzlies upset the No. 1 seed Spurs in 2011, they were the younger, faster and more athletic team taking advantage of what was thought to be a Spurs team dynasty fading into the twilight of the Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili era.
Thursday night Fizdale made his adjustment and kicked the game off with the graybeards the Grizzlies’ starting lineup. Randolph, 35, and Gasol, 32, up front along with 40-year-old Vince Carter, the oldest player in the league, starting at shooting guard alongside Conley.
The “Grindfather” Tony Allen, 35, strained his right calf in the regular season finale and is out for this series, otherwise the Grizzlies first five would have needed AARP cards to get into the arena.
They proved that age is nothing but a number, outworking and outplaying the Spurs, who sport plenty of league elders of their own.
The win snapped a nine-game playoff losing streak and a 10-game postseason skid to the Spurs.
Fizdale, in his first year here after collecting rings with the Miami Heat championship teams that battled the Spurs twice, vowed after Game 2 to make sure his team wouldn’t be “rooked” by the mighty Spurs.
The challenge for the Grizzlies, though, began during training camp. When Fizdale informed Randolph the he was moving him from the starting lineup to a role off the bench in favor of the younger and more explosive JaMychal Green, Randolph could have made a mess of the locker room and destroyed the team chemistry that needed developing throughout the course of the season.
Instead, he was the first one to go to Green and serve as a mentor and confidant. Randolph started just five games all season before Thursday night, responding with a throwback effort (21 points and eight rebounds in 29 teeth-rattling minutes) while outplaying LaMarcus Aldridge and any other big man the Spurs threw his way.
It was a virtuoso effort from a player who has logged many a mile on his body in 16 NBA seasons, a seasoned veteran who endured the most trying season of his career. Randolph’s mother died on Thanksgiving.
“Z-Bo was fantastic,” Fizdale said. “I said it during the interview in the third quarter, it just matters so much to him. And the guy’s been through so much this year personally. And he’s made the biggest sacrifices. Whether he’s starting for me or coming off the bench he’s just been fantastic. And I’m very happy I’ve had the opportunity to coach Zach Randolph.”
The need to continually nurture the relationship with Randolph this season was non-existent for Fizdale, who praised all of his veterans for adapting to the changes that came with a new coaching staff and system.
Randolph, in particular though, responded accordingly at every turn.
“Honestly, it was one conversation,” Fizdale said. “I promise you. He might have had a couple days here and there where he probably was like, ‘Let me start.’ But he never brought it to me. Maybe my assistants were putting out the smoke when they see it, but he just has really taken it all in and embraced the role. I just don’t know if people realize how awesome a guy he is, that’s what I don’t know if people understand. In our community, with his teammates, with his family, off and on the court, it just doesn't matter. He’s such a good spirit and I just really root for him.”
If the Grizzlies want the good vibrations from Thursday night to linger into the weekend for Saturday’s Game 4, they’ll need to keep Randolph’s fire burning (he went deep into the way back machine in Game 3, recording a rare dunk on a fast break).
“It’s fun to see him succeed,” Conley said. “It’s fun to see him do the things he’s accustomed to doing. He’s done it for so many years here. And it was almost like he was a secret weapon tonight and we finally unleashed him. He really changed the game for us, hopefully changed the series and really gave us some confidence.”
It’ll take more than just a temporary confidence booster.
The rhythm Randolph and Gasol (21 points, six rebounds, three assists) rekindled as a starting duo needs to continue. The flow Conley found after halftime (he finished with a game-high 24 points and eight assists) cannot be a one-night affair.
Throwback night has to crank up again, complete with the raucous crowd and palpable energy in the building.
And that headband wearing big man, Randolph, dialing up another performance of old.
“Zach is a player man,” Fizdale said. “When the popcorn is popping and the lights are on … now you come to one of my practices on one of the off days and he looks like can’t move. The guy is walking like he’s got the most sore toes you’ve ever seen. And then somehow the lights come on and he’s flying around. He got a dunk tonight. But Z-Bo is just one of the great competitors. I think anyone that competes against him can attest to that and coaches all around the league can attest to that. He’s just one of the great competitors.”
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