Dominant Zach Randolph returns to help Memphis force a Game 7


As Zach Randolph goes, so go the Memphis Grizzlies.

While that statement might not necessarily be true on a game-by-game basis, it’s certainly true in terms of just how far Memphis will go in these playoffs. The Grizzlies needed every bit of Randolph’s 30 points and 13 rebounds in Game 6, on their way to a come-from-behind, 95-83 victory on Friday that will force a Game 7 back in Oklahoma City on Sunday.

“He got life early in the game,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said of Randolph. “I thought it gave him confidence, and throughout the game he was getting better. I thought the second half … it seemed like he made every big shot for them.”

Randolph started strong with eight points in the first quarter, but the second half was where he did most of his damage. While Oklahoma City tried to protect its double-digit halftime lead by launching again and again from beyond the 3-point arc, the Grizzlies went to Randolph down low, and he delivered, especially late, with 12 points and six rebounds in the fourth quarter.

Randolph’s game was especially important, given that he hadn’t done much of anything in this series since his dominant performance in Game 1. In the four games before this one, Randolph had largely been kept under wraps, managing to hit on just 22-of-69 in those games.

But Game 6 was different. And Randolph said he was feeling it from the very start.

“I felt pretty good tonight,” Randolph said. “My rhythm was there, my shot felt good, so I was just trying to be aggressive. I told myself from the beginning, I don’t want to sit back and wait. I want to try to push it — push myself, and assert myself early, and get into the game.”

The Grizzlies made a change to their starting lineup, and inserted O.J. Mayo in place of Sam Young to begin Game 6. Randolph admitted that this may have created some extra space for him to operate, but his aggressiveness from the start was really the difference, especially when comparing his efforts from the last four games of this series.

The Thunder are a young team, one that doesn’t yet possess the mental toughness to close a quality team out on the road in a playoff series, as evidenced by their poor shot selection when Memphis made a run to start the second half. Quick threes and long jumpers are no way to stop a run on the road, and as a team, OKC finished just 4-of-25 from 3-point land, with Kevin Durant — who couldn’t get into a rhythm all night after having to sit with two early personal fouls — missing eight of his nine attempts from distance.

Things will likely be different for the Thunder when they host Game 7, but the same might not be true for Randolph. The aggressive way he attacked on Friday was reminiscent of his dominant 34-point performance in Game 1, and if he can bring it like that for just one more game, the Grizzlies might just find themselves in the Western Conference finals against the well-rested Dallas Mavericks.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.

UNLV following Kentucky’s lead with combine for NBA scouts

Goodluck Okonoboh, Patrick McCaw
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Kentucky held a two-day combine last season for NBA scouts.

Now, LSU and UNLV are following suit.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports:

The Runnin’ Rebels will hold their event on October 23rd and 24th at the Mendenhall Center, UNLV’s practice facility, sources told The expectation is that all 30 NBA teams will be in attendance.

LSU has potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and another first-round prospect in Tim Quarterman.

UNLV features lottery prospect Stephen Zimmerman.

This won’t replace scouts attending games and watching practices, but the fact that all 30 teams plan to attend shows how seriously the pro league takes these. No college team wanted John Calipari to have that competitive advantage in recruiting, so the smart ones are leveling the field with their own combines. Soon, more college teams will follow.

As the calendar gets packed, NBA teams might have to pick and choose which they attend. At that point, we might get little clues about which prospects they’re scouting hardest.