Sunday April 24th, 2011

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The chant started in the rafters and quickly spread into the lower bowl.

Z-Bo, Z-Bo, Z-Bo.

Hundreds quickly became thousands -- 18,119 to be exact -- their voices becoming louder, stronger with each passing second.

Z-Bo, Z-Bo, Z-Bo.

Standing alone on the sideline the object of their adoration, Zach Randolph, couldn't help but let a smile slip. He has gone through so much to get here. Dismissed by Portland. A salary dump by New York. Shoved aside by the Clippers. Everywhere Randolph went, it seemed, his weaknesses overshadowed his strengths.

Not here. Not in Memphis. Here, he is beloved. His past is his past. They know about it. They just choose to forget. "As far as I'm concerned," said Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley, "his career started here." That career began with an All-Star season in 2010 and, perhaps, reached a high water mark with a 25-point, five-rebound and three-assist effort in Saturday's 91-88 win over San Antonio. The final margin came courtesy of a Randolph three-pointer over Tim Duncan that whipped the sellout crowd into a frenzy and gave eighth-seeded Memphis a surprising 2-1 lead in the series and its first home playoff win in history.

"That's the shot I work on and practice every day," Randolph said. "It felt good when it left my hands."

Said Duncan, "I didn't assume that was in his arsenal."

It is, and much more. Randolph has always been able to fill a stat sheet -- "you could pretty much chalk up a 20-and-10 night every time you played him," said Shane Battier -- but in Memphis, his game has diversified. Often accused of being a black hole in the post, Randolph is an improved passer. On the Grizzlies' first possession, Randolph found a cutting Mike Conley. Later, Randolph executed a perfect high-low pass to center Marc Gasol, who picked up the bucket and the foul. In the second quarter he skipped a behind-the-back pass to Tony Allen for a layup.

"Zach's the kind of guy who always wants to do the right thing," Battier said. "And he's a heck of a basketball player."

MANNIX: Randolph, Grizzlies agree to four-year extension

In Memphis, however, Randolph has become more than that. He is a one of the most oft requested players for community events and interacts with fans like he is one of them. A "Let's go to work Z-Bo" from a teenager in the fourth row? That gets a wave. A constructive criticism from a middle-aged man on the baseline? A nod and a "you're right" look. When 7-year-old Ellen Taylor shuffled off the floor after singing the national anthem, Randolph was the first one to give her a high-five. Indeed, the small town boy from Marion, Ind., has found a home in one of the NBA's smallest markets.

"This city has adopted me," Randolph said. "The people here work hard, they accept you for who you are. That feels good."

That acceptance has been well earned. Randolph and Gasol have been human wrecking balls in Memphis's two wins. On defense, they have clogged up the paint and have been there to meet every Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili drive. And against San Antonio's smallish front line, the Grizzlies' big men have exploited every mismatch. Gasol pumped in 17 points of his own on Saturday, with the duo accounting for the bulk of the team's 44 points in the paint. It was only when San Antonio started to take away some of their post-ups in the second half that the Spurs were able to claw their way back in it.

"They are big bodies and they are taking some stuff away from us," Duncan said. "We are just not reacting as well as we usually do to what is open and to what we have."

The Spurs have never won a series in the Duncan era when they had home court advantage and lost two of the first three. But the series is far from over. San Antonio outscored Memphis 46-39 in the second half and had a chance to tie it in the final seconds of regulation. This Spurs team won't be rattled by a 2-1 deficit or an energetic home crowd. Been there, done that.

"As I told the players, it's going to be a dogfight," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. "This was a battle. [The Spurs] are not going anywhere."

Neither, of course, is Randolph. The Grizzlies' workhorse will be back at his familiar position in Game 4, banging his 6-foot-9, 253-pound frame on the blocks. The player ushered out of Portland, New York and Los Angeles has become Memphis' most indispensable man. The man so many coaches thought couldn't be counted on, trusted, now has a team and a city's unbending faith. Zach Randolph has always put up big numbers. Now, he is the biggest reason a playoff team is posting big wins.

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