It's a guard's game now, or so many in the NBA firmly believe. The proliferation of talented playmakers -- from Derrick Rose and Chris Paul, to Rajon Rondo and Deron Williams -- has created the perception that little men have taken over the league. And maybe they have. There will be a point guard (Rose) raising the MVP trophy soon, and three others (Paul, Rondo and Russell Westbrook) have made measurable impacts on their first-round series.
But they don't buy into that belief in Memphis, where size still matters. That the Grizzlies are one win away from becoming just the second No. 8 seed to eliminate a No. 1 seed in a best-of-seven series (Golden State upset top-seeded Dallas in 2007) can largely be credited to the play of Zach Randolph (18 points per game this series) and Marc Gasol (15.5), a pair of pure big men who succeed with simple blunt force.
"Good power bigs are rare," said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, whose team seeks to close out the Spurs in Game 5 on Wednesday in San Antonio. "Most big men today face up and play pick-and-pop. You don't find a lot of these guys anymore."
Randolph, according to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, is unique. He hauls his 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame down the floor like an offensive lineman and jumps just high enough to slide a piece of paper under his feet when he shoots. But a combination of soft hands ("best of anyone I've ever played with," Shane Battier said), a soft touch and superior body control makes him nearly impossible to contain in the paint.
"He knows how to use that body," Memphis forward Leon Powe said. "You think it's easy to block his shot but when he gets that body into you, you have no chance. He's a beast. He seals you off, gives you a jab step, comes back toward the middle -- you know what's coming, it's just hard to stop."
Those same skills help Randolph on the glass. Randolph routinely finds himself matched up with more athletic power forwards. More often than not, he outrebounds them. Popovich calls his positioning "[Dennis] Rodman-like," while Battier says that if there is a loose ball, "Zach's going to get it."
"It's all about tenacity," Hollins said. "Paul Silas wasn't very athletic. Same thing with Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird. But they knew where to be and when to be there."
The same can be said about Gasol. The 7-foot-1, 265-pound center has long since shed the tag "Pau's brother," mostly because he plays nothing like him. He can score when he has to (24 points in Game 1), and rebound (17 in Game 2) and defend when he doesn't. Gasol's wide body and active hands have held Tim Duncan to his lowest playoff scoring output (12.8 points) of his career.
"Gasol does all kinds of things," Popovich said. "He's a smart player."
Paired up, Popovich said, Randolph and Gasol are "a pretty good package." The majority of Memphis' offensive possessions run through one of them and their ability to clog the lane allows the Grizzlies to gamble -- they led the NBA in steals (9.4) per game in the regular season -- without fear of getting burned.
"Marc and Zach, they are going to grind," said Tony Allen. "They use their size and they bang you. You go in the paint, they are going to hit you every time."
They will have to keep hitting if Memphis want to put away this this series. Tony Parker finally found his rhythm in Game 4 (23 points), and it's reasonable to expect Duncan, Antonio McDyess and Richard Jefferson to be more productive in front of the home crowd. To advance to the second round for the first time in franchise history, the Grizzlies' big men will have to play big again.
"We haven't accomplished anything yet," Hollins said. "We made a little noise and got everybody excited, but we still have to win one more game. That's our outlook."