With 6:58 to play in the fourth quarter Saturday night, Marc Gasol entered the game for the Memphis Grizzlies. He took the place of the slim, perimeter based big man Jon Leuer. His re-entrance into the game meant the Grizzlies front line was now operating at its usual full strength: Gasol and Zach Randolph.
The Milwaukee Bucks did not make a sub to specifically counter the big for bigger swap Memphis made. Larry Sanders did re-enter, but he came in for John Henson, who was playing center alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, who, as he’s done quite a bit lately, was moonlighting at power forward.
This meant Sanders would guard Gasol and Giannis would be checking … Zach Randolph.
According to the game notes distributed to the media before games, Randolph measures in at 6-foot-9, 260 pounds. He’s in his 14th season in the NBA. He’s averaged over 10 rebounds per game nine times. He’s literally referred to as “the bully on the block” by Grantland/ESPN’s Jalen Rose. Z-Bo, as he’s called, is a reference to the movie Friday and the character Deebo, who looks like this.
Giannis is a second year player who probably couldn’t stay out past dark 14 years ago. He’s 19. Unlike most 19-year-olds, he is 6-foot-11. Despite that height, he still gives up 43 pounds to Randolph, weighing in at just 217.
This was a mismatch and it started rough for Milwaukee.
On Milwaukee’s first defensive possession after the substitution, Randolph bulldozed Giannis until he was under the hoop and grabbed an offensive rebound. He kicked out to Courtney Lee, who dropped in a three to put Memphis up 83-81. Rebounding has been a great challenge for Milwaukee this season, and while they’d been battling admirably against a big Memphis team all night, it would have been fair for Bucks fans to wonder if this gamble of Giannis on Z-Bo would be so destructive to Milwaukee’s rebounding chances that it would cost the Bucks the game.
The Grizzlies grabbed another offensive rebound on the next possession, though Giannis was fighting off Randolph away from the bounce. A missed three by Tayshaun Prince was grabbed by Milwaukee. The teams traded misses until a Mike Conley layup put Memphis up 85-81.
And then things got really interesting. Milwaukee’s offense started to run through Giannis. If he had to guard Randolph on one end, that meant one of the Memphis bigs had to guard Giannis.
“Coach was telling guys the other guys to give me the ball, because he saw that I had a mismatch and he saw that I make some shots, so he wanted me to have the ball,” Giannis said after the game.
First, Marc Gasol checked him. The perimeter on offense can be a friendly place for Gasol, where his soft touch, height and heady passing skill serve him well. The perimeter on defense? It’s no place for a man with his foot speed. On consecutive Milwaukee possessions sandwiched around a missed Memphis layup, Giannis blew by the lumbering Spanish center for easy scores.
Memphis had to counter and play to its own strength. So they went to Z-Bo. He established position on the rangy forward and caught an entry pass. He powered Giannis under the basket and finished a layup.
“Just gotta get lower than him,” Giannis said of defending Randolph. “And get in the front of him. He’s stronger than me. So if I’m under him, he may take me tot he basket, so I gotta get in front of him.”
Giannis got the call again at the top of the key on Milwaukee’s next possession. This time, it was Randolph on him, but Memphis was aware of his eye for the hoop. He began driving on Randolph and help immediately came. Without hesitation, Giannis kicked to an open Jerryd Bayless, who buried a three. The lead went back to Milwaukee.
Randolph would not be denied easily though. He fought Giannis for position again after a near blow up from Larry Sanders on the next possession and Antetokounmpo couldn’t avoid picking up a foul. After the foul, Memphis went to Randolph again, who faced up and hit a short fadeaway jumper. These guys must have been having a blast at this point. Certainly everyone in the arena watching them go back and forth was enjoying the show.
Giannis got the ball at the top of the key yet again on the next possession. This time he drove into the paint and didn’t mess around with help, he hit a short jumper over Randolph and drew the foul. He missed the free throw, but it was the beauty of his effort and assertiveness that mattered the most.
The two of them didn’t really go at each other in the final two minutes. On the next Bucks possession Brandon Knight launched a jump shot while Jason Kidd plead with him to get the ball to Giannis. Then Giannis rotated to help on the other end and Randolph grabbed an easy offensive board that led to two points and a Memphis 91-90 lead. A few fastbreaks occurred for the Bucks, but they couldn’t finish. After fouling the Grizzlies with 15 seconds to play and watching Mike Conley miss one of his two free throws, the Bucks needed a big play from someone to tie the game or take the lead.
On the final possession, Giannis watched from the sideline. It was a bit strange, but his matchup advantage wasn’t there anymore, as the Grizzlies went with a defensive unit that did not include Randolph. But rest assured, it was Giannis who made the biggest difference in getting the Bucks to that final play. He didn’t take the team home, but he dropped them off at the curb and watched them get into the house safely.
“The nice thing for Giannis, being able to fight defensively,” Coach Jason Kidd said after the game. “You’re talking about one of the best forwards in the game in Z. Z’s always going to make sure there’s some contact. Giannis being probably 220 pounds, he’s outweighed. But Giannis did a great job defensively.”
“We played through Giannis. He didn’t settle.”
Pretty good for a 19-year-old.