By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – Zach Randolph has waited all season for an opportunity like this.
“I always think about being a starter, still being who I am,” Randolph insisted as the Grizzlies entered their first-round playoff series against San Antonio. “So I just keep that mind frame when I go in there and compete. I’m not going to say this has been easy, because I think I’m still a starter in this league. But as I’ve said all season, whatever is best for the team is what I’ll go out there and do.”
What was pushed to be ideal and necessary for the Grizzlies during the regular season might not be what’s best for Memphis right now as the team attempts to rally from a 2-0 deficit against the Spurs.
Entering essentially a must-win situation in Game 3 on Thursday at FedExForum, Randolph may reclaim an old role in a familiar place alongside Mike Conley and Marc Gasol in the starting lineup. Grizzlies coach David Fizdale confirmed after Thursday’s shootaround that a change will be made in the starting lineup, although the first-year coach won’t reveal specifics until just before the start of the game.
But there have been strong indications Memphis will start the unit that provided it the biggest boost of the series in Game 2, when it cut a 26-point deficit to four before falling 96-82 on Monday in San Antonio. After trailing 56-37 at halftime of Game 2, Fizdale moved rookie guard Wayne Selden and forward JaMychal Green to the bench and inserted Randolph and James Ennis III into the starting group with Conley, Gasol and Vince Carter to open the second half.
The Grizzlies shot 52.6 percent from the field, outrebounded the Spurs by three and forced five turnovers on the way to a 28-19 edge in the quarter. It was the most complete quarter for the Grizzlies in an otherwise lopsided series in which San Antonio has outscored them by a combined 43 points. Through two games, Memphis has shot just 38.5 percent from the field overall, 29.8 percent from three-point range and has the lowest scoring output of all playoff teams at 82 points a game.
“I’m going to make some changes, but I’ll let them know later,” Fizdale said Thursday. “We’ve got to be deeply engaged in the competition, right form the jump. And that’s competition with discipline. Again, we are talking about the Spurs, the greatest execution team you’ll ever come across. So you have to bring raw competition to it and do it with a focus.”
It’s just all about trying to bring energy from the outset of the game.
Randolph had 18 points, 10 rebounds and three steals in 36 minutes on Monday while Ennis took over as the primary defender on Spurs’ forward Kawhi Leonard. Ennis closed Game 2 with seven points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals but also had five fouls while defending Leonard. Still, Ennis emerged from the game as the lone Grizzlies’ player with a positive (plus-5) in total plus-minus rating.
“It’s just all about trying to bring energy from the outset of the game,” Ennis said Thursday.
During a season in which the Grizzlies have used 25 different starting lineups, Fizdale had tried just about everyone in the opening group – with the exception of Randolph. The rationale was that Memphis needed the 15-year veteran’s scoring punch on the second unit, and it’s resulted in Randolph leading all NBA reserves with 20 of his 21 double-doubles this season coming off the bench.
But when Fizdale has typically found a unit that’s produced, he’s remained with that combination until the results determine otherwise. With the Grizzlies having shown encouraging signs from a second half when they outscored the Spurs 45-40 in Game 2, the evidence is as obvious.
The lineup decision appears to be as well.
“You’re down 0-2 … you have to really make the moves necessary to get a win,” Fizdale said as he stopped just short of confirming any intentions. “Hopefully, you can pull it off. You’re always looking for a positive, and the way we played that second half was a big positive for us. From a competitive standpoint, overall, it was some of our better execution.”
By playing Randolph with Conley and Gasol from the outset, it gives the Grizzlies three scoring options for the Spurs to contend with on the court. Conley believes the change would be seamless because the three have been starters for much of the past seven consecutive seasons they’ve made the playoffs.
Get pumped for tonight’s Game 3 matchup against the Spurs at 8:30pm at FedExForum.
That core also knows what it takes to overcome a 2-0 series deficit, which Memphis did when it rallied with four straight victories to get past the Clippers in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. That team ultimately advanced to the Western Conference finals and lost in four games to the Spurs, who now carry a 10-game playoff winning streak against the Grizzlies into Thursday’s matchup.
“Just from our experience being down 0-2, it is possible to come back, it is possible to change a series,” Conley said. “You just have to find that one tweak, that one adjustment you might find and stick to it. And hopefully we can find that going into Game 3.”
So I’m going to check the rule book and find out if robots are allowed to play in the NBA… He bleeds antifreeze. He’s special.
Another essential adjustment is figuring out a way to limit Leonard’s impact on the series, which starts by preventing the MVP candidate from routinely getting to the free-throw line. Leonard is averaging 34.5 points and seven rebounds while shooting 71.4 percent from the field. He’s also made all 28 free-throws he’s attempted in the series. Fizdale has witnessed this level of dominance before from Leonard, who was Finals MVP when the Spurs blitzed the Heat in 2014, when Fizdale was an assistant in Miami.
“I’ve seen this movie – I don’t want to keep going down this road with him, so we have to make some adjustments,” Fizdale said. “He’s a big-time player, first-class individual, tireless worker from everything I hear about him. He was standing next to me the other night and wasn’t breathing. So I’m going to check the rule book and find out if robots are allowed to play in the NBA. Somehow, (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) and them have figured out something I didn’t know about. He bleeds antifreeze. He’s special.”
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