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Spurs shut down Zach Randolph in Western Conference Finals’ first major strategic move

May 20, 2013, 9:22 AM EDT

Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs - Game One Getty Images

Zach Randolph recovered the opening tipoff in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, and he didn’t touch the ball again until the possession following the Grizzlies’ first timeout.

Moments after cameras caught Randolph and Tim Duncan sharing a laugh coming out of that timeout, Randolph ran a seemingly designed pick-and-pop with Mike Conley, caught the pass and drove toward the rim, where Duncan blocked him.

I don’t know whether Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner or Boris Diaw had the last laugh, but one of those four Spurs certainly did. They each took turns making Randolph and the Grizzlies’ offense look foolish in a 105-83 win over Memphis.

Randolph finished with a season-low two points on 1-of-8 shooting in 28 minutes, the lowest-scoring playoff game by a player who averaged at least 15 points per game in the regular season and played more than 20 minutes in the playoff game since Ray Allen in Game 3 of the 2010 NBA Finals.

In that game, Allen shot 0-for-13, but Celtics trailed by just two points in the final minute their game against the Lakers. Randolph’s Grizzlies, on the other hand, got hammered by 22.

It’s just not common for interior players to shoot so poorly, but the results are particularly devastating. Sometimes, outside shooters go cold. In the 2013 playoffs, Randolph became the 13th player to shoot 12.5 percent or worse from the field on at least eight shots – joining 11 guards and small forwards and a jump-shooting power forward (Serge Ibaka). Those 12 players’ teams went a reasonable and middling 5-7.

When a key low-post player like Randolph struggles so mightily, it’s very difficult for his team to even approach middling. Not only did Randolph shoot poorly, Memphis wasted valuable time on the shot clock trying to throw entry passes to him against a Spurs defense that fronted him. Randolph flubbed away one entry pass, and Tony Allen threw away another for two clearly Randolph-related turnovers. But several other Memphis offensive possessions were hindered as the Grizzlies passed the ball around the perimeter waiting for a clear passing lane.

In the rare times Memphis actually got the ball inside to Randolph – three of his shots, including his lone make, came directly after offensive rebounds (two of which Randolph got due to San Antonio’s fronting) – the Spurs effectively used double-teams.

After his horrid playoff game, Ray Allen said, “But I never hang my head. [Wednesday] is another opportunity to get right back on track.” Randolph would do well to emulate Allen’s focus, but not necessarily Allen’s vow to keep shooting.

If the Spurs again devote so much defensive attention to Randolph, the Grizzlies shouldn’t keep wasting shot clock to get him the ball. And maybe Memphis should give a few of Tony Allen’s and Tayshaun Prince’s minutes to Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless, two quality offensive players who will prevent San Antonio from double-teaming Randolph as easily.

Gregg Popovich made this series’ first major strategic move with San Antonio’s defensive gameplan against Randolph. It’s time for Lionel Hollins to respond.

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