The Memphis Grizzlies’ magical run in the playoffs finally came to an end Sunday afternoon as they fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first Game 7 of the 2011 playoffs, 105-90.
Memphis, the surprise team of the playoffs, knocked out the top-seeded Spurs in the first round, and pushed the Thunder all the way, within one game of the Western Conference Finals.
Many would say that is a quite impressive feat for a team that has often been mentioned as part of NBA contraction talks.
Grizzlies fans can thank Zach Randolph above all else for the team’s climb to contention. Though Knicks fans may remember Randolph as the underachieving ball hog he was made out to be during his time in New York, he has been quite the opposite for Memphis.
In fact, the playoffs may have actually helped Randolph ascend into a level of super stardom. Never before considered a major star, Randolph led a team filled with perfect role players such as Tony Allen, Shane Battier and O.J. Mayo to a major first round upset while averaging 21.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals.
To be an effective leader (or better yet, the best player on his team), one doesn’t have to necessarily win any scoring titles. Despite only averaging just above 20 points during the regular season, Randolph seemed to have found his niche playing with the group in Memphis and certainly displayed how effective he can be during the national platform that is the NBA Playoffs.
Randolph played well and took smart shots during the playoffs. While he’s been known in the past to throw up errant shots, those same types of shots fell for Randolph. Those same conversions have come to make him an incredibly versatile player and an even tougher one to guard.
Randolph hurt the Spurs (and even the Thunder to an extent) by changing things up often, taking the ball inside and out to knock down impressive jumpers. He also played quite physically, pushing opponents around on both ends of the floor. On offense, he was able to post up and make his way to the basket with ease.
On defense, on the other hand, Randolph used his big body to push defenders and keep them away from the basket. When he was in fact accurately defended, Randolph made the extra pass to find open teammates on the perimeter.
Is there any other such big man that plays with the same level of versatility and physicality as Randolph? The style of play of Kevin Garnett comes to mind, but as he grows older, perhaps this is Randolph’s cue to be the next elite player with that type of skill on the floor.
A tight second round playoff series that had the Grizzlies and Thunder tied at three games apiece saw Randolph average 23.8 points and 12.7 rebounds. Unfortunately for him, after six games, the Thunder seemed to have finally figured him out. Veteran forward Nick Collison played lockdown defense, not allowing Randolph to evade him in the post for easy buckets. Shooting 6 for 15, Randolph was limited to 17 points in the series-deciding loss.
Nevertheless, Randolph did tally 10 rebounds in the contest, proving once again that he is one of the league’s most consistent double-double machines. Randolph’s offense suffered since the Grizzlies were without a serious second option (Rudy Gay has been out since February), so the Thunder defense was able to concentrate its energy solely on him.
When Randolph takes the court once again next season, it’ll be time for him to build upon his playoff explosion and lift off as a superstar.
Randolph has not only averaged a double-double for five straight seasons (trailing only Dwight Howard’s seven consecutive seasons), but was one of only four players this season to average 20 and 10—along with Howard, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin.
Howard was named this season’s Defensive Player of the Year, Love was the league’s Most Improved Player and Griffin took home top rookie honors for his efforts. So what kind of accolade does Randolph have to show for his accomplishments? The 10-year NBA veteran was named to the All-NBA Third Team.
Please note that the NBA's third leading scorer (Carmelo Anthony) was left off of all three All-NBA teams for this season—further proof of Randolph's status.
Having just been rewarded with a multi-year extension with the Grizzlies, Randolph can no longer look take advantage of his success by joining a team in a larger market like many stars have in recent years. Instead, it’s time for him to continue to prove he’s at the same level as the NBA’s top dogs. It is now his job to prove he can create his own legacy in Memphis to show that the Grizzlies can no longer be considered a push over.
If he can do that in the years to come, Randolph is sure to garner countless star-worthy accolades and see many more winning records.
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