Zach Randolph doesn't like to think too much about last season.
"Too painful," the Grizzlies' power forward said.
Literally? Well, yeah. Last January, just a week into the lockout-shortened season, Randolph tore the MCL in his right knee. The injury sidelined him for two months and even after he returned, he never felt comfortable.
"He wasn't 100 percent by any stretch," Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said.
Figuratively, too. In 2010-11, Randolph was the catalyst for a Grizzlies team that surged into the playoffs, knocked off top-seeded San Antonio in the first round and took Oklahoma City to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals. When Randolph returned from injury last season, his presence was disruptive. He started three games before Hollins moved him to the bench, and Randolph returned to the starting lineup just in time for the Clippers to bounce Memphis from the first round.
To Randolph, those memories hurt worse than any physical pain.
"It was the most difficult season of my career," Randolph said in a telephone interview. "I worked so hard in the summer and during the lockout. Then coming back, not being able to play how I can play was real tough. I didn't have my feel for the game. I didn't have that fast bounce. I was overweight. I wasn't in the best shape. I was worried about my knee and my knee wasn't 100 percent. I'm a warrior, though, so I wasn't going to complain."
What Randolph did was resolve to work. He took two months off to allow the knee to fully heal. Then, in August, Randolph reported to Frank Matrisciano, a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Memphis. Randolph's work with Matrisciano in the summer of 2011 left him "in the best shape of my life." Despite the injury, Randolph came back to Matrisciano more motivated than ever to work his way back.
"What the deep sand does is it takes away the stress on your joints," Matrisciano said. "Sand makes tendons and ligaments work and forces you to work. It's tough. Taking four steps on the sand is like taking 12 steps on a hard surface."
After the sand workouts, Matrisciano had Randolph climbing ropes and pipes and pulling his 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame across monkey bars 15 feet in the air. The point, Matrisciano said, is to force the 31-year-old Randolph to work muscles he rarely, if ever, used before.
"It's not for everyone," Matrisciano said. "I train special-ops guys. For every 10 guys who come to me, only three stay. But Zach came in ready to work. The goal is to get him in shape so he can play until he is 40. He has unbelievable mental discipline."
This season, the old Randolph has returned. He is averaging 16.2 points and an NBA-high 14.5 rebounds, recording a double-double and at least 12 rebounds in every game during the Grizzlies' 5-1 start. With a full training camp, Randolph has regained his chemistry with the first unit and alongside center Marc Gasol has restored Memphis's intimidating frontcourt.
"They play as physical as anybody in this league," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Everything starts inside-out with them. It makes it very dynamic. They put a lot of pressure on you to not foul but also be able to defend their actions."
With Randolph healthy, the Grizzlies are thinking big. Randolph and small forward Rudy Gay have played well together -- "I don't know why anyone thought they wouldn't," Hollins said -- and the continued development of point guard Mike Conley (14.8 points, 6.8 assists) has solidified the backcourt. Three-point shooting, a weakness for the Grizzlies in 2011-12, has been an early-season strength: After making 32.6 percent last season (25th in the NBA), Memphis is connecting on 39 percent (fourth) this season behind newcomers Jerryd Bayless (8-for-15) and Wayne Ellington (who hit a career-high seven threes in 11 attempts to lead Memphis past Miami 104-86 on Sunday).
"This team is better than the one in 2011," Randolph said. "We have Rudy back, and he is healthy. Everyone has matured. Everyone has contracts. We have all grown as players and we are all focused on winning."
"We know we aren't going to get any love," Randolph said. "We are in a blue-collar town with blue-collar players. We'll just keep on playing. Everything I got I worked hard for and that's how we feel as a team. We are the underdogs who are just going to keep working."