MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Zach Randolph(notes) bowed his head and let the roar of this delirious night fall upon him. They had stayed, some 18,000 fans strong, to salute their conquering hero as he strode off the court. Randolph flung his headband into the stands and finally disappeared down the tunnel, headed to a Game 7, a one-or-done shot at the Western Conference finals which seemed impossible for his Memphis Grizzlies just a month ago.
Randolph has carried this unlikely collection of misfits and reclamation projects to the most thrilling moment in an NBA season. Game 7s promise only a suffocating mess of pressure and tension, and Randolph delivered the first for these wild playoffs, sending the Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder to one last, decisive battle.
On a night when none of them wanted this crazy ride to end, Z-Bo gave the Grizzlies 30 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks, rallying them to a 95-83 victory that evened this Western Conference semifinal series at three games each. Afterward, his teammates could only shake their heads and grin.
The Grizzlies have ridden Randolph throughout these playoffs. If his latest performance wasn’t surprising, it’s because he did the same thing in another Game 6 exactly two weeks earlier to eliminate the West’s top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. The bigger the moment, the bigger Randolph has played. Now it’s time to see if the only A-list star in this series can do the same.
Game 7s make both heroes and cowards, and now the sporting world gets to see how Durant toes the line. This isn’t fair, especially for a 22-year-old who has already won the United States a gold medal in the world championships, led the NBA in scoring twice, given the Thunder their first division title and first playoff series victory … and was just named to the All-NBA first team. But this is also how sports work. The world forever judges its heroes, its stars, on how they respond to adversity.
After going six games with Tony Allen(notes), Durant would probably prefer a series with the Bird-McHale-Parish dynasty. He emerged from Game 6 looking worse than he has all season, having scored 11 points and making just three of his 14 shots. In the 330 previous games of Durant’s four-year career, including playoffs, he’s had a worse shooting percentage just four times – and three of those games came in his rookie season.
For all the criticism Russell Westbrook(notes) has weathered in these playoffs for shooting too much, perhaps the opposite is true: Maybe he’s not shooting enough. Durant struggled to free himself of Allen, Battier and even Sam Young(notes) on Friday, and spent most of the night floating 30 feet from the basket. Nine of his shots were 3-point attempts, and he made just one of those. All told, he missed 11 of his final 12 shots.
“I was just thinking too much,” Durant said, “rather than playing on my instincts.”
Two early fouls didn’t help. One of those came on a charge call after a pass by Durant, and he never really tried to drive again. Of his six free-throw attempts, two came after fouls on jump shots and two more came on a fast-break opportunity.
“Where he just kills you is the free-throw line,” Battier said. “When he’s going to the basket, it puts pressure on the defense to foul him.”
Durant didn’t do that nearly enough. He lost his aggressiveness, and the Thunder couldn’t hold back the Grizzlies without him. With his season pushed to the edge Sunday in Oklahoma City, he’ll need to attack.
“He’s one of the best at bouncing back,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
The Thunder can only hope he’s as good as Randolph. Two nights earlier, Z-Bo walked off the floor in OKC, muttering to himself after a foul-plagued nine-point performance in the Thunder’s runaway win. During the ensuing off day, he made clear that the Grizzlies’ coaches needed to put him in better positions on the floor to succeed. Lionel Hollins did that by starting O.J. Mayo(notes) over Young, giving the Grizzlies a shooter on the floor who could open the court for their big men.
Randolph found his rhythm and saved his best work for last, frustrating the Thunder with his spins, half-steps, feints and fall-away jump shots. Twelve of his points came in the fourth quarter to wall off the Thunder.
Randolph doesn’t have a second star to share in the heavy lifting. The Grizzlies go as he goes. That they’ve made it this far is a testament to Z-Bo’s career arc. In many ways, he’s the anti-Durant. It took Randolph nearly a decade and four teams to fulfill his potential. Durant’s work ethic has never been questioned. Nor has Durant made any public missteps off the court. Randolph once took bereavement leave from the Portland Trail Blazers to fly to Indiana to attend the funeral of his girlfriend’s cousin … only to be spotted at a Portland strip club.
Randolph’s charitable endeavors in Memphis have extended beyond the adult entertainment business. He’s found a home in this hardscrabble Southern city, and somehow Hollins has molded this roster of characters around him. The Grizzlies have grown into a rugged, relentless group that just keeps coming and coming. They’re too hungry, or clueless, to know better.
Matched against the young Thunder, the NBA’s darling do-gooders, the Grizzlies have given the league its most contrasting and competitive series of these playoffs. The Grizzlies grind and scuffle. The Thunder largely live off the sweetness of their jump shots.
“We’re both trying to figure this out – it’s both our first times this far,” Battier said. “It’s sort of like getting keys to the car for the first time. You’re miles away from home, you have to get home, and it’s midnight. We both have had the same look at times this series.”
They have one game left to sort it out. These Grizzlies haven’t given up anything without a fight, and they likely won’t start now. No one knows if Z-Bo and his guys can sustain this magic ride into next season, but who cares? Next season is next season.
The Thunder could benefit from having some of the same desperation. The franchise has invested so much time in trying to lower expectations and discussing its future vision that it just might miss out on the current opportunity.
Game 7, an adoring crowd, one win for a trip to the West finals. Durant has vowed to play better. Given his talent and past history, there’s a good chance he’ll make good on his promise. He’s performed well for much of this series. He doesn’t want one bad game to define him.
“I’m a winner,” he said.
Believing is the first step. Now he gets to prove it. Embrace the moment or let it swallow you.