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Randolph lifts Grizzlies over Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY – Forget Dirk Nowitzki(notes) and Pau Gasol(notes). Never mind Kevin Garnett(notes), Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) and Tim Duncan(notes). Blake Griffin(notes) and Kevin Love(notes)? They’re too young to merit such praise.

Kevin Durant(notes) has a new nomination for the NBA’s best power forward. Zach Randolph(notes) didn’t make the All-Star team. His jersey doesn’t sell much outside of Memphis. Rarely, did he even appear on the league’s nightly highlights – at least until the calendar flipped to the middle of April.

What Randolph did do was punish the Oklahoma City Thunder for 34 points and 10 rebounds less than 48 hours after he eliminated the Western Conference’s top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. With the Memphis Grizzlies overwhelming the Thunder 114-101 in the opener of their West semifinal series, Durant had seen all he needed to see.

“He’s an animal,” Durant said. If that wasn’t complimentary enough of Randolph’s un-humanlike performance, Durant made this pitch a moment later:

“He’s the best power forward in the league.”

And what did Randolph think of Durant’s assessment?

“I got to agree with that,” Randolph said. He wasn’t smiling.

A lot fewer people would argue that opinion today than would have two weeks ago. This is Randolph’s 10th season in the NBA, the same number the Grizzlies have spent in Memphis since their relocation from Vancouver, British Columbia. Evidently, both player and franchise have decided to use these playoffs as their coming-out party.

Not many people outside of Memphis noticed the Grizzlies’ rapid improvement over the season’s second half, and there’s good reason for that: Sunday was the Grizzlies’ first national TV network game ever on ABC. The Grizzlies’ coaches like to joke that Thursday was their designated off day in the regular season because TNT also rarely broadcast their games.

“A lot of people haven’t seen the Memphis Grizzlies play,” Randolph said. “… But we’ve been for real.”

The Grizzlies thought they could make some noise in the playoffs, even as the No. 8 seed. Their confidence has only swelled after they took down the Spurs in six games and then handed the surging Thunder just their third home loss since March 1. So what’s next?

“We’re just taking it one game at a time,” Randolph said. “But, you know, we’re thinking big. We ain’t just thinking small.”

The Thunder now realize that. In consecutive games, Randolph has set a Grizzlies playoff record for scoring. Memphis controlled Sunday’s game from start to finish largely because Randolph totaled 14 points and six boards in the first half.

“They give him the rock. He finds his position and gets it where he wants to get it,” Durant said. “He’s unbelievable.”

What makes Randolph’s ability to dominate even more surprising is that he looks more like a defensive tackle than a power forward. He doesn’t jump much and he isn’t particularly tall for his position, listed, somewhat generously, as 6-foot-9.

“The game is fundamentals,” Randolph said. “A lot of guys don’t have a lot of fundamentals. A lot of guys have athleticism, but a lot of guys can’t dribble. A lot of guys can’t shoot. A lot of guys can’t finish around the basket.

“A lot of guys can jump high and run fast. That has something to do with it, but that ain’t the game of basketball.”

Prior to Randolph’s arrival in Memphis, there was question whether he would ever live up to his potential. The Portland Trail Blazers took him with the 19th pick of the 2001 draft, but he frequently ran into trouble away from the court. In his first few seasons, he was arrested separately for underage drinking and for driving under the influence of marijuana. He also earned a suspension for punching teammate Ruben Patterson in the face. Just two seasons ago, he earned separate suspensions with the Los Angeles Clippers after another DUI-related arrest and for hitting opposing forward Louis Amundson(notes).

The Grizzlies overlooked all of that when they acquired Randolph after the 2008-09 season in what amounted to a salary dump for the Clippers, who had just drafted Griffin with the No. 1 pick.

“He came to us with a clean slate,” Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley said. “I can honestly say he didn’t have one blemish on that slate. We have nothing but admiration for Zach. …The city loves him, and [everything] he’s done we are extremely happy with.

“What happened wherever – if it happened – it’s not on our watch.”

The Memphis community has embraced Randolph, who describes his stay with the Grizzlies as a “great fit.” Heisley showed his confidence in the 29-year-old forward by signing him to a four-year, $71 million contract extension during the Grizzlies’ first-round series with the Spurs.

“He’s earned already everything we’ve gave him,” Heisley said.

After Randolph finished his postgame interviews on Sunday following the Grizzlies’ victory, he met some friends who had patiently waited for him near the court. In the process, he bumped into his old coach – Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks, who was with Randolph for part of his stay in Portland.

Cheeks put his arm around Randolph like a proud papa.

“He was never short on talent,” Cheeks said. “…But he is just going to another level right now.

“I don’t want to see it now. I’m glad he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, but I told him to slow it down.”