Commentary

Crunch time belongs to Randolph

Originally Published: April 23, 2011
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Maybe the Memphis Grizzlies really did tank those last couple of games of the regular season because they really did want to see mighty San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs. Maybe Lionel Hollins will eventually be able to admit that to us someday.

Trust me, though.

Hollins did not want this.

Nowhere to be found on Hollins' wish list was the script that had his Grizzlies rolling up a 15-point lead, surrendering all of that lead, transforming the most raucous crowd in Grizzlies history into the most jittery Grizzlies crowd of all time … and then mis-running the most important play of the game.

"The play kinda got busted," Hollins admitted later. "I screwed it up during the timeout. I didn't want it the way it was [run]."

Yet you suspect he'll live with the result. The ball never made its way inside to Marc Gasol as diagrammed in Saturday night's final minute, landing instead in the hands of Zach Randolph behind the 3-point line with the shot clock ticking down fast and Tim Duncan daring him to shoot. It all became a bit more bearable when Randolph -- after shooting 8-for-43 from deep in the regular season -- rainbowed in an all-net triple from the right wing with 41.9 seconds remaining, ultimately clinching a 91-88 win with the most memorable single act of a career he just keeps redefining.

So ...

The real screw-up in this Game 3 for Hollins would have been successfully digging his eyes out, which appeared to be his intent about halfway through the fourth quarter at the height of Memphis' crunch-time exasperation. He instead had the rare pleasure of watching his eighth-seeded upstarts contribute to an evening of wild finishes all over the NBA map and secure another slice of Memphis history, escaping with the Grizzlies' first home playoff win when the famously poised Spurs did something historic of their own ... by malfunctioning as badly as anyone could remember at the end.

Randolph (25 points) gave the Spurs one last chance when he missed another way-out jumper with just under seven seconds to go. But George Hill advanced the rebound faster than Spurs coach Gregg Popovich could call timeout before pitching the ball to Manu Ginobili, who wound up getting himself trapped by Gasol and Mike Conley along the right sideline without even getting a shot off. Which left Duncan -- already in disbelief after Randolph's bomb -- asking referee John Goble in vain after the buzzer how he could possibly miss TD signaling for a TO.

Hearkening back to Randolph's 3, Duncan said: "I didn't assume that was in his arsenal at that point of the game."

More than a few assumptions perished on this night, despite the palpable here-we-go-again dread that unmistakably spread through the FedExForum when the Grizz -- 0-6 lifetime at home in the playoffs and 0-4 in this building before Saturday's breakthrough -- found themselves locked in an 80-80 game with 5:14 to go. The city has never bought into the Grizzlies like they have with this team, judging by the unprecedented amount of Grizz signage in a town that typically belongs to the Memphis Tigers, but the fifth sellout of the season couldn't help but fall silent at various points of the fourth quarter, too nervous to wave its white "Growl Towels" with the same fervor seen in the first half.

But now the locals know that the new Grizzlies don't always fold like their thrice-swept predecessors. Just as these Spurs can't simply presume that experience will bail them out, as it so often has in the past, because the Grizz -- as Shane Battier is fond of saying -- appear to be too young and oblivious to know that No. 8 seeds aren't supposed to torment 61-win teams like they have.

"It felt good when it left my hands," Randolph said unashamedly, convinced that taking (and making) his 3 made a lot more sense than the one Duncan unforgettably threw in against Phoenix in 2008.

Someone asked Conley if this was the win that officially announced the Grizzlies to the nation, to which he replied: "I hope so. If we're not [for real] now, then we will be. We're not worried about what people think. We're just going to keep grinding and playing our way until people give us respect. I know the Spurs respect us."

Affirmative. The Spurs will be unashamedly grateful to get back to San Antonio for Game 5 at 2-2 given the issues they're facing now, starting with Tony Parker's consistent inability to outplay Conley after being hailed by his coaches for turning in the most consistent regular season of his career.

The failure to call a timeout to set up a final shot in a one-possession game was embarrassing. Ditto for the fact that (A) Duncan set the tone for the evening by airballing his first free throw and (B) Randolph made almost as many 3s as the Spurs, not at all resembling the potent offensive force they became this season, did as a team (2-for-15).

But Parker's struggles are the biggest worry, even bigger than Antonio McDyess' scary late exit after McDyess injured his neck in a tangle with Duncan. With Ginobili already playing hurt thanks to that sprained right elbow, San Antonio needs Parker to win the matchup at point guard. Parker certainly had the flashier shoes in Game 3, switching to his silver space-boot look, but Conley has been undeniably steadier. The next time Parker conclusively wins that matchup will be the first.

"We were not sharp enough finding our teammates," Ginobili said, shifting some of the blame onto himself in a bid to perhaps ease the rising burden on Parker. "Two-for-15 is not us. We've been the best 3-point-shooting team in the league for 82 games."

As for McDyess?

"Timmy came down on my neck and bent it sideways," Dice said. "That was some of the worst pain I've encountered. My arm was totally numb. I've never experienced anything like that. The doctors say it's just a bad stinger. I think I'll be OK. They say all the feeling will come back eventually."

One more worry for the trailing Spurs: Memphis' confidence is bound to spike now that it has managed to deliver for its desperate fan base. The Grizzlies look decidedly unfazed by the crowd's high expectations. Or their ongoing struggles from outside apart from Randolph's fairy-tale triple. Or the glaring lack of a dependable backup, with apologies to Greivis Vasquez, to get Conley some rest.

Even Hollins, frequently annoyed by the questions he gets from the press, sounded almost nostalgic as he spoke of his excitement "for the city of Memphis" and couldn't stifle a broad smile when asked to share what he was really thinking when Randolph hoisted his bailout rainbow.

"I'm glad he did," Hollins said.

"We've still got miles to go, but I'm happy we are where we are."


Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics