Zach Randolph: West finals or bust for Grizzlies

Zach Randolph hasn't played since tearing his right medial collateral ligament on Jan. 1

As Zach Randolph nears his long-awaited return to the Memphis Grizzlies, he has a warning for the rest of the Western Conference.

He thinks this season's Grizzlies are better than last season's team that upset the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and came within a victory of beating the Oklahoma City Thunder and reaching the West finals.

"We got an All-Star-caliber player out on the perimeter [Rudy Gay] who can score inside and out and can shoot the ball," said Randolph, who hasn't played since Jan. 1 after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. "Mike Conley is playing so much better than he was last year. We have Tony Allen. Marc Gasol is an All-Star. We're a dangerous team, definitely. We're way better, day and night.

"Last year, if you think about it, if we won the triple-overtime game in Memphis [against the Thunder in Game 5 of the second round] we probably would have won that series. We were close to getting to the Western Conference finals last year, so we got to think West finals this year."

With Gay sidelined by a shoulder injury, Randolph carried the Grizzlies in last season's playoffs, averaging 22.2 points and 10.8 rebounds. Gay has played well this season, and Gasol was named to the All-Star team for the first time. Still, the Grizzlies again will lean on Randolph once he's healthy enough.

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Randolph said doctors have told him his knee is fully healed. He practiced for the first time a week ago and admitted he was a little worried that he could re-injure the knee if he fell hard. He's never been known for his athleticism – his game is largely floor-bound – but said he needs to lose some weight and regain his conditioning. He would prefer to come off the bench and play limited minutes while he gets into shape.

"The owner [Michael Heisley] told me, 'Don't rush it,' " Randolph said. "He told me to come back when I feel like it, when I'm ready. That's all I need. The coach [Lionel Hollins] is the same way."

What remains to be seen is whether the team's chemistry will change upon Randolph's return. Gay has led the Grizzlies in scoring this season, but will likely see at least a modest drop in his shot attempts once Randolph is back in the lineup. The Grizzlies also are playing with much loftier expectations. Last season, they were content to simply make the playoffs. Now they think they can contend for a championship.

"Coach does a great job of keeping us all grounded and reminding us where we came from and started at as a unit and how we were a 24-win team three years ago," Conley said. "Now that we've worked our way to this point he doesn't let us forget what got us here. Everybody is in it for one thing and one goal. As long as we can keep that motto and keep that amongst everybody, the egos won't be a problem."

Even without Randolph, the Grizzlies have played well. They've won six of their past seven games and are in fourth place in the West. Still, the Grizzlies are rarely mentioned as an elite team. That could change once Randolph returns.

"We don't get a lot of respect anyway," Randolph said. "It's cool. We just got to earn it."

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