HOUSTON — West All-Stars coach Gregg Popovich recalls all too well Zach Randolph’s extraordinary performance in the opening round of the playoffs two years ago that enabled the Memphis Grizzlies to become only the second eighth-seeded team in NBA history to eliminate a top-seed when they beat the San Antonio Spurs in six games of the their best-of-7-series.
Nevertheless, as much as Randolph had provided fits to his Spurs during that remarkable playoffs series, Popovich admittedly is pleased to witness the 12-year veteran back on the NBA’s most-celebrated stage for the first time in three years.
“It’s great to see him here because he’s very deserving,” Popovich said of Randolph, whose previous All-Star appearance was in 2010 before a sold-out Cowboys Stadium. “He’s a unique player. There’s nobody in the league like him. For a big guy to have the hands he has and the quickness he has, the ability to score is really unique in the way he does it. It seems unorthodox and his timing seems as if it’s a half a count different than everybody else where he gets the shot off or gets a rebound for you. His instincts, his knack for being around the ball is unsurpassed around the league. So, on an individual basis, that’s what makes him great. But secondly, he’s competitive and tough-minded, so it’s wonderful that he’s here.”
To Randolph’s credit, his originality will be put on display once again when the Grizzlies power forward suits up as one of seven reserves for the West squad here Sunday night at 7 CST in the Toyota Center in the NBA’s 72nd annual All-Star Game. For the 32-year-old Randolph, who essentially has been thrust into the proverbial “franchise player” role since the recent trade of Rudy Gay to Toronto, re-emerging as an All-Star-caliber player at this stage in his career, by all accounts, will make his latest appearance in this event much more relishing.
Among the reasons is that the Marion, Indiana native spent a majority of last year battling a slew of injuries, most notably a torn MCL last January that sidelined him for a majority of the condensed, lockout-shortened regular season. In fact, Randolph’s injury, as he tells it, was the “lowest point” of his career, in large part because he was months removed from having enjoyed a memorable campaign that was highlighted by the Grizzlies staging the best postseason run in franchise history, one in which Randolph steered Memphis to within a game of the Western Conference finals.
“I had that feeling,” Randolph, sitting at his designated table before a gallery of reporters, said during Friday’s Media Day, when asked if he felt his MCL tear would prevent him from returning to full strength. “When it first happened, I was sitting at home and couldn’t move my legs and watching the other guys play. It did cross my mind. But when I got up and started working out last summer, my confidence came back and I believe I could get back to playing at the same level.”
If there were critics who sensed that Randolph was merely a shell of his old self coming into this season, the former Michigan State star effectively silenced them in a December 4 game the Phoenix Suns in FedExForum. That’s when the 6-foot-9 Randolph went off, scoring a season-high 38 points on 15-of-22 field goals and grabbing 22 rebounds in leading the Grizzlies to a 108-98 win.
“I mean, we all knew he came back from injury and into the playoffs, he wasn’t himself,” East starter LeBron James of the Miami Heat, a nine-time All-Star, said of Randolph. “To come all the way back, to play the game he’s playing, and they’re winning in that tough Western Conference, and for him to be back and be in the All-Star Game, you know, kudos to him big time.”
Fortunately for Randolph, while his monster game against the Suns was reminiscent of his exuberant playoff display two years when he averaged a team-best 22.2 points in 13 postseason outings, it was a performance that ultimately prompted a number of coaches around league to acknowledge him for serious All-Star consideration.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“Coming back from injury to this…I mean, the coaches picked me,” Randolph said. “They picked me so this is a great feeling. I guess this (All-Star appearance) is a little more special. You’ve got to take it for what it’s worth and enjoy every minute.”
That’s something about which Randolph pledges to do here in Houston, especially after what he described as a challenging first half of the season for what has become a revamped Grizzlies team.
“I believe we still got a pretty good chance,” said Randolph, whose Grizzlies (33-18), despite of number of roster transactions in recent weeks via trades, still occupy the fourth spot in the Western Conference heading the season’s second half. “A lot of people are doubting us because we traded one of our best players. I think we can still do what we set out to do and go to that next level. I think we’ve got some good players who can help this team in different ways.”
In the meantime, though, Randolph — exhibiting his signature smile and cracking jokes with reporters on Friday — just wants to absorb and savor the splendor of the moment, one that, come Sunday night, will give way to him being christened as one of the NBA’s elite, while on the league’s most-celebrated stage.
“I feel like I was supposed to been an All-Star a couple of times,” Randolph said. It’s a blessing. I’m humbled about it. I appreciate it. And being in this room with all these All-Stars, it’s great. It’s means a lot. I was hurt last year and, after putting in the work over the summer to where I am now, it means a lot.”
What a difference one year makes.