Now the Memphis Grizzlies, who traded their leading scorer in January, have surged into their first Western Conference Finals behind an unlikely Big Three of their own.
Marc Gasol still is Pau’s little brother to some. Memphis thought about trading guard Mike Conley, the son of a track star, early in his career. And Memphis is Zach Randolph’s fourth NBA team.
“Me, Marc and Zach, we all tried to take the team and put them on our back and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do. This is what we’ve got to do to be great and get to where we want to go,’” Conley said Friday. “We knew we had to step up, and we all did that.”
That they have.
The Grizzlies never won a playoff series with Rudy Gay on the court.
When they beat the Spurs in the first round in 2011, it came with Gay sidelined by an injury.
Even though Memphis traded Gay on Jan. 30 to Toronto in salary-cutting move, he wound up as the Grizzlies’ leading scorer with 17.2 points in the regular season. But the shots Gay took largely have been split among Conley, Gasol and Randolph, and they have helped Memphis win eight of nine playoff games to finish off first the Clippers, then the Thunder.
And Memphis is the only team in the NBA this postseason with three scorers in the top 20. Not the Spurs. Not the Heat.
Now Conley and Randolph can agree that the trade wound up helping the Grizzlies.
“At first, it was some different thoughts, even myself and some of my teammates,” Randolph said. “But after a while, it was, ‘OK, this is our identity. We got an identity. Guys are going to stay in their roles.’ ... It ended up being good.”
The Grizzlies settled into their inside-out game with Randolph down low on the block and Gasol out near the free throw line throwing in hooks and his flat-footed jumpers. Conley darts in and around handing off the ball, picking off steals and scoring when needed.
Randolph is averaging 19.7 points and 9.3 rebounds this postseason, and Gasol is close behind at 18.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.18 blocks. Conley ranks fourth in the playoffs averaging 7.6 assists a game, and he’s scoring 17.6 points a game – the best of his career.
“It has helped me out a lot, just the responsibility in itself has been big for me, and I’ve just tried to use this opportunity to get better and make my teammates better,” Conley said.
The Grizzlies play the Spurs in Game 1 on Sunday in San Antonio. But only the most optimistic Memphis fan along with coach Lionel Hollins and general manager Chris Wallace even thought this combination could work so well.
Gasol was the throw-in when Wallace traded Pau, the Grizzlies’ all-time leading scorer, to the Lakers on Feb. 1, 2008, in a deal heavily criticized as a gift to Los Angeles. But the Grizzlies got the draft rights to Marc, who had played two years of high school ball in Memphis.
Now the 7-foot-1 Marc is the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year who played his first All Star game last season.
Conley, son of Olympic track star Mike Conley Sr., helped lead Ohio State to the national championship game as a freshman at Ohio State playing with Greg Oden. Memphis drafted him fourth overall in 2007 but was unhappy enough with the guard in 2009 that they were trying to trade him before Hollins argued to put him on the floor.
Conley led the NBA in steals this season and easily held his own against All-Star guard Chris Paul in the first series. His play has been so good this postseason that teammate Tony Allen keeps arguing Conley is among the top five in the NBA.
“With all those other point guards finishing up being hurt, Mike Conley’s name is in there,” Allen said. “Top five now I believe.”
Conley and Gasol had been together a season when Randolph joined Memphis in a trade that where the Clippers cleared a roster spot for Blake Griffin on July 17, 2009. Randolph fit right in both on the Grizzlies and in Memphis where his scrappy play with a vertical leap that barely goes past his outstretched toes has made him a fan favorite and a two-time All Star.
If Gasol or Conley have the hot hand shooting, Randolph said he can be a decoy as he was most of the semifinal series against Oklahoma. He broke out with 28 points and 14 rebounds in the series clincher Wednesday night, and Randolph knows he’ll get more space to operate under the basket when Gasol and Conley score away.
“Our chemistry is great,” Randolph said. “We’ve been doing this for five ... years. We feed off each other and play off each other.”
Now the Memphis Three have their sights set on a championship knowing they have to find a way to beat Duncan, Parker and Ginobili to have a chance.
“Their big three done won championships and did a lot more than our big three,” Randolph said. “We’re just trying to get to where they’re at.”