This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of MemphiSport.
Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph have been teammates for the past three-and-half years, long enough to establish a close knit friendship between each another. To their credit, their veteran leadership has complemented their contrasting roles and benefited greatly to the Memphis Grizzlies’ success in recent years.
Generally, their on-the-court success has afforded them to develop a remarkably tight rapport away from basketball, one that ultimately was put to test during the Grizzlies’ memorable playoff run last year.
For instance, although the Grizzlies became the first team in ten years to knock off a No. 8 seed, the excitement surrounding their first playoff series win in franchise history resulted in mixed feelings, or sorts, for Gay, who was sidelined with a season-ending shoulder injury he suffered against Philadelphia days after the All-Star break.
“It was tough,” Gay recalls. “In a way, it was like a dream come true for me. But the only difference is that I wasn’t a part of it. But teammates had a great run.”
Among those who routinely kept Gay in high spirits was Randolph who, despite being the subject of an Indianapolis drug investigation in May 2010, emerged as the catalyst of a Grizzlies team that came within a game of advancing to the Western Conference finals last year.
“I see him as a big brother,” Gay said of Randolph. “Anything I needed, he’d help me and vice versa.
The New Year didn’t start off particularly well for Randolph, a 2010 All-Star who found himself in a similar predicament as the one Gay endured last year. In Memphis’ 40-point loss at Chicago Jan. 1, the 10-year veteran went down in the first quarter with a partially torn medial collateral ligament of his right knee, an injury that Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins initially sensed would sideline his star power forward for the remainder of the year.
Randolph’s injury, which occurred five games into the season, proved costly for the Grizzlies. Despite reeling off wins against Sacramento and Minnesota, Memphis dropped its next three games. During that stretch, Gay, the team’s leading scorer, averaged just 14 points while connecting on 22-of-53 field goals.
Consequently, Gay’s subpar numbers brought about criticism during the losing streak, in large part because fans, members of the local media, and those affiliated with Grizzlies organization felt that the six-year small forward wasn’t playing up to the five-year, $82 million contract extension he signed in July 2010.
While Gay admittedly didn’t pay much attention to what was being said and written about his play after Randolph went down, he essentially took the criticism in stride.
“Where much is given, much is expected,” said Gay, when asked to assess the early-season criticism. “But I don’t think I was 100 percent ready after I came back (from injury). Mentally, I don’t think I was basketball ready the first of October. Had the season started on time, I know I wouldn’t have been ready.”
Conversely, there were some who felt that Gay being discredited for the team’s early struggles was a premature assessment, considering the Grizzlies were in the early stages of the season following a 149-day lockout that reduced the 82-game campaign by 16 games.
“I think people should raise up off of Rudy,” ESPN play-by-play announcer Mark Jones said in a telephone interview from Miami. “He’s shooting about 45 percent from the field. Plus, I believe Memphis is right on track to make a run in the Western Conference.”
Among the biggest reasons the Grizzlies are, as shooting guard O. J. Mayo affirmed before the season, “ring chasing,” is that they finally have a healthy Gay and Randolph back in the fold during what undoubtedly is a pivotal stretch in the season.
Though Hollins is slowly working Randolph back in a starter’s role by having him come off the bench, the Grizzlies managed just four victories in nine games through the end of March, this after both players returned from injuries March 16 against Toronto. However, Hollins has repeatedly said in recent weeks that Memphis can’t possibly duplicate, let alone eclipse last year’s postseason run with Randolph averaging only 14 points and 26 minutes per game.
As for when Hollins plans to reinsert Randolph back in the starting lineup remains unclear with less than a month left in the regular season. The way Jones sees it, though, even with Randolph, Memphis’ third-leading scorer, assuming a reserve role, the Grizzlies, who currently occupy the sixth spot in the West, have sufficient chemistry and depth to mount a lengthy postseason run.
“I can definitely see them making a deep run,” Jones said. “I think they can win in the postseason. I mean, you’ve got Zach and O. J. Mayo coming off the bench. That, I believe, gives them a tremendous scoring punch. Would it be nice to get home court (in the opening round)? Yes. But they have proven they can do without it.”
If the playoffs started today, the Grizzlies would face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and, like last year when they upset then No. 1-seed San Antonio, would play Games 1-2 on the road. Whether Memphis can repeat last year’s opening-round shocker will depend largely on how Gay performs in his first postseason appearance. Once again, the Grizzlies would need a similar effort from Randolph, who exhibited arguably the best postseason display of his career against the Spurs and Oklahoma City.
Randolph started each of Memphis’ 13 playoff outings, averaging team highs in points (22.2), rebounds (10.8), and minutes played (39.6). Gay, on the other hands, appears to have used the early-season criticism as motivation, given he has registered consistent numbers, even after sustaining what team doctors diagnosed as a concussion after a March 12 game at Denver.
Through the end of March, Gay has started 48 of Memphis’ 49 games, leading the team with 18.8 points per contest. Add to that the team’s solid offensive balance, and it’s no wonder many haven’t dismissed the notion that the Grizzlies, who boast six players averaging in double figures, are serious threats to come out of the West.
What’s even scarier, at least for opposing teams, is that the Grizzlies, barring no severe injuries, will have Gay around for the postseason to complement the excitement Randolph and company created throughout the Bluff City last year.
“All good teams are not 1-2-player teams,” Hollins said. “When Rudy went out (last year), guys stepped right in and played even better. It’s just like when Zach went down, we went to a more up tempo style of play. All of these guys are NBA players and realize they have a job to do.”
Only this time, the responsibilities for the Grizzlies likely will appear much easier now that Randolph is steadily working his way back into midseason form and Gay is performing much like the franchise player many anticipated at the beginning of the season.
“He’s a great, great player,” Golden State coach Mark Jackson said of Gay. “He can hurt you in so many ways. He’s made a strong case that he could have been an All-Star player.”
That honor, it turns out, went to Grizzlies center Marc Gasol. Like Gay and Randolph, Gasol, who is second on the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game, has also been hampered by injuries of late. Hollins decided to rest the 7-foot-1 Spaniard for the Grizzlies’ recent home game against Minnesota. Gasol, dressed in street clothes, was seen wearing an ankle boot on the bench, prompting Randolph to joke with reporters in the dressing room after the game.
“It seems a curse has hit this team,” said Randolph, when asked to assess the Grizzlies’ assortment of injuries this year.
Fortunately for the Grizzlies, Gasol’s injury kept him out for only one game as he returned for the next outing at Houston and scored 19 points in a losing effort. Now with everyone back for what appears to be a healthy and hungrier Memphis squad, Gay and Randolph are hopeful that the “curse” remains a nonfactor with playoffs looming.
“The sky’s the limit for us,” Gay said. “Obviously, now that me and Zach are back is an added dimension. But right now, we’re proving we’re a great team.”
A team that, given its formidable chemistry and depth, has emerged as a serious threat to advance past the Western Conference semifinals in the coming weeks, something Randolph believes likely would have happened last year if not for Gay’s injury.
“He definitely was the missing piece,” Randolph said of Gay. “He’s our franchise player. If we had him, we would have won that series (against Oklahoma City).”
Gay appreciates that Randolph looked to him as a leader, particularly during the Grizzlies’ intense playoff series against the Thunder.
“It means a lot for Z-Bo to feel that way about me,” Gay said. “He had a terrific series. Now we’ve got a chance to make some noise.”
Especially now that both players will be around for what the Grizzlies hope will be another dramatic playoff run.
Andre Johnson is a regular contributor for MemphiSport. Follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.
Photos by Joe Murphy (NBAE/Getty Images)