It happened with four minutes and thirty-nine seconds left in Game 6 of this first-round series with the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, when Randolph put a wobbly team on his sturdy back and turned a tense crowd into a tent revival.
Randolph's moment was prepared by a dramatic narrative and emotional arc built over 44 minutes of high-stakes basketball in front of a first wild, then nervous, then overcome collection of 18,119 fans.
The Spurs scored two points from the foul line in the game's first possession. But, after that, feeding on pure emotion and noise and adrenaline, the Grizzlies exploded with a 20-4 run.
It was crazy basketball. Mike Conley picked up two fouls within the first two minutes — the one thing the Grizzlies feared most all season — and went to the bench. Rookie sub Greivis Vasquez responded to his early entry with six points in his first 94 seconds. (Pressure? "Oh, he loves that," Marc Gasol said later. "He's from Venezuela. Trust me. It's a lot rougher over there.")
Tony Allen had three steals within the game's first four minutes. It was chaos — the kind the Grizzlies tend to thrive on. And they did, but lost amid the clamor were bad shots (Allen, Randolph, and Vasquez were a combined 0-5 from three-point range in the first quarter. Designated long-range shooters O.J. Mayo and Shane Battier combined for zero attempts the entire game) and ragged execution.
Eventually, the Spurs settled down and came creeping back — cutting a 14-point Grizzlies lead down to 8 at the end of the quarter.
For the next two quarters, the Spurs pushed but the Grizzlies wouldn't break — the lead ranging from one to eight (with one brief tie) until midway through the fourth.
And then the Grizzlies broke: A brilliant Manu Ginobili shot followed by a disastrous Tony Allen offensive possession. Another brilliant Ginobili shot followed by another disastrous Allen offensive possession. And then Antonio McDyess hit a long jumper, and the Spurs took a lead — 80-79 — for the first time since the opening minute.
The crowd was nervous. A precarious seventh game — in San Antonio — was in sight.
Lionel Hollins took a timeout. Subbed O.J. Mayo for a floundering Allen. And put the ball in Zach Randolph's hands.
What happened over the next three minutes was stunning: Randolph took over the game in a way that I don't quite ever remember seeing a Grizzlies player take over a game.
A turnaround jumper immediately got the lead back. A fadeaway jumper a minute later pushed the lead up to 5. Then he drew a foul and hit both free throws. Then another fadeaway. Then he drove right through McDyess, willing in a five-foot runner that pushed the lead, improbably, to 9.
This was a 12-2 run in three minutes in which Randolph scored 10. Scored them with a ferocity that the Spurs couldn't even begin to contain. By this time, the Grizzlies lead 91-82 with just over a minute to play, and the rest was formality. An advance scout for the Oklahoma City Thunder sat beside me. I looked at him during this run, and he was just watching Randolph, shaking his head.
The final: Grizzlies 99-91.
"He was crying for it," Allen said of Randolph coming out of that crucial timeout. "He was whooping and hollering for it. That's Zach Randolph. He's a monster down there. He demands attention on that block."
"He's used to making all these great shots," said Gasol, Randolph's frontcourt mate and locker-room next-door neighbor. "But tonight, with what it meant to the city. The way he did it, against that team… great."
For Randolph, it was a culmination. As recently as this month, a national columnist wrote — stupidly — that Randolph had "a punk chromosome." But whatever happened in his past, he has been spectacular in Memphis — a bruised and bruising, proud and colorful player for a bruised and bruising, proud and colorful city. Memphis loved and appreciated Randolph before tonight. After this?
"It's meant a lot to me," Randolph said after the game, talking about the home he's made here. "It's never been like this anywhere else. This city has embraced me. I feel like I'm from Memphis. God has blessed me."
But tonight wasn't just about the players and coaches — though kudos to Lionel Hollins, who was superb tonight in managing the chaos and guiding this unruly ship to shore. If Zach Randolph has come out of this series clearly the franchise's greatest player, Hollins has certified himself as its greatest coach.
It was about the 18,119 fans in the stands and the many, many more watching, listening, or otherwise following the game, who rallied around this team — but more so each other — in a way that didn't seem inevitable even a few months ago.
After the game, Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace walked out the front of FedExForum, "growl towel" in hand and walked down Beale Street — waving it and high-fiving fans. And if a lot of these fans were invisible just a few months ago, that's fine. It would be stupid for anyone who cares about this franchise to complain about bandwagon fans. The Grizzlies need all the fans they can get, and what's happened over the course of this series in connecting the team to this city is potentially definitive.
That's the bigger meaning of this upset, of this charismatic Grizzlies team knocking off NBA royalty.
But, for now, there's more basketball to be played. The team will board a plane tomorrow for Oklahoma City. And at noon on Sunday, the Grizzlies will play the first game of a best-of-seven second-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder in what could — we can dream — be a preview showcase for the "New Western Conference" — winner facing the victor of the "old West" battle between the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks.
"It feels great," said Marc Gasol after the game, still looking forward. "But we have more to do. The job is not done. We don't know where we can get, but we know we can compete against everybody.
"Obviously we made history," said Tony Allen, who is no stranger to deep playoff runs. "But why stop now?"
(Note: It's a quick turnaround, but look for a Grizzlies-Thunder series preview here sometime before Game 1 tips.)