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Z-Bo makes way for the reign of 'Big Spain'

12/16/2014
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports

One minute after his putback sealed a win over the Dallas Mavericks, Marc Gasol stepped to the free throw line to polish off the fourth 30-point game of his 2014-15 season -- this after hitting that threshold only once in 436 prior in the NBA. As the 7-footer toed the charity stripe, "MVP" chants rang out in the Memphis Grizzlies' FedExForum for the first time this season.

Gasol was predictably sheepish about the fan response after the game, but he'll have to get used to it. Already an elite defender and playmaker, Gasol's scoring boost -- at 19.4 points per game, he's nearly five points ahead of his previous career best -- has helped make the Grizzlies something more than daydream believers for the NBA championship and, yes, put him firmly in the early-season conversation for MVP.

But while the spotlight has shifted to Gasol this season -- which also happens to be the last on his current contract -- the Grizzlies' interior attack in last week's win over Dallas, and much of the team's 19-4 start, remains a tag team.

Gasol scored 14 points in the first quarter against the Mavs. Zach Randolph, after a slow first half, scored 13 in the third, including multiple point-blank buckets over the top of former defensive player of the year Tyson Chandler. (Randolph, a couple of days later, joking: "Yeah, but I been doing that to Tyson since high school.")

Three nights later, after the duo combined for 39 points and eight blocks in a double-overtime win over the Charlotte Hornets, Hornets center Al Jefferson called Gasol "the best all-around big man in the game" but also declared the Randolph-Gasol duo "the toughest frontcourt I've ever played against."

In an era in which brawny, skilled post players are increasingly hard to come by and the stretch-4 is becoming the norm, the Grizzlies have been blessed with two of the league's best true big men. Gasol and Randolph rank seventh and eighth in "close touches" (i.e., within 12 feet of the rim) per game, according to the NBA's player tracking data, while Gasol leads the league in "elbow touches." And the big trains from Memphis are rumbling like never before, even with a slight, but welcome, reduction in Randolph's playing time.

Per 36 minutes, Randolph and Gasol's combined averages of 38.6 points and 20.7 rebounds are the highest of their partnership. Both have a player efficiency rating (PER) above 20 for the first time, too.

After six seasons together in close quarters, executing high-low feeds in the paint or riffing off of each other at adjoining lockers, Gasol and Randolph have developed an on- and off-court bond -- Randolph made the scene at Gasol's Barcelona wedding the summer before last, as did Mike Conley -- that might be one of the coolest things in the NBA, especially given how ostensibly different they are.

Randolph is a bootstrapping success story from hardscrabble Marion, Indiana, and Gasol the son of educated medical professionals, who grew up in beautiful Barcelona and matriculated at Memphis' Lausanne Collegiate School, with an NBA star older brother. Think Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, with malice toward fewer.

Their rare basketball union has also been an evolving one, with this season the culmination of a gradual -- and easy to overstate -- role reversal in which Gasol has gone from Randolph's frontcourt sidekick to the team's offensive alpha dog, and vice versa. It's a shift that runs counter to the duo's natural temperaments -- Randolph entering the league with the "get buckets" gene, Gasol always more deferential.

"Marc's always been so unselfish," Randolph says. "Forget that, man. We need you to go to work, not just make a play for someone else. I tell him every game, 'Go out there and dominate.'"

That instruction is starting to take, and while Gasol's slimmed-down physique clearly helps, it's been as much mental as anything -- Gasol (finally) recognizing that the best shot might come from him, even if it isn't always the "best" shot.

"This year I changed my mindset," Gasol says. "Instead of taking eight or nine shots, I might need to take 14 or 15 or 16 because that's what the team needs. It's not easy, because when you have a good shot and you feel like someone else has a great shot, it's just in [my] DNA to swing the ball."

Gasol says he wanted to step up more last season but didn't feel physically ready to do so.

That's where his improved conditioning comes in. Long on the heavy side, Gasol slimmed down like never before this offseason. And while it indeed comes right before he's set to cash in with a deal, Gasol cites the knee injury that knocked him out of 23 games last winter as the impetus.

"The injury was eye-opening to me," Gasol says. "I was a little naive. I thought I wouldn't get hurt because, you know, I'm not a high-flier. I do dive on the floor a lot, so I thought the most I'm going to get are bruises. I never thought I would have a knee injury or something like that, but, of course, I was dead wrong, and that made me realize if I'm going to be the player I want to be and push the limits -- not only for myself but for the team -- I have to be able to do more on the floor."

Gasol says former coach Lionel Hollins used him as a "focal point in the post-up game" early in his career, but the arrival of Randolph in 2009 changed that. With Randolph occupying the low block, Gasol happily migrated more to the high post, where his European-bred skills as a passer and shooter excelled.

Now Randolph is returning the favor. With Gasol emerging as a more prolific scorer, Randolph's abilities off the ball have smoothed the transition.

"I don't have to always get the ball. I can get offensive rebounds, dump-offs, tip-ins," says Randolph, who is currently sporting the best rebound rate (20.3) of his career. "I don't have to be the focal point. I can get it out of the mud."

But Randolph acknowledges moving back into a more secondary role would have been more difficult if it weren't Gasol to whom he was yielding touches.

"It's a lot easier [with Marc]," Randolph says. "I love the guy, man. I call him my brother from a different mother. We have a special bond."

Gasol also sees the duo's ability to shift roles as a function of trust.

"The truth is that we both look at basketball in kind of the same way and that we've always been really honest with each other," Gasol says. "We always have each other's back, no matter what it is. We have an understanding. When I catch the ball, I don't just hold it and look for him like I [used to]. If my man is playing off of me, I'll shoot it from the top or try to get in the lane and drive it. It depends on where the game takes you, but I still take care of him. And he's always in my peripheral vision because he's someone, when he gets going, who is a special force."

Randolph cites Gasol's time spent playing high school basketball in Memphis as informing his demeanor, a common observation that Gasol dismisses even as he confirms the tug the city has on his heart.

"I don't know the reason [Zach and I] kicked it off so fast," Gasol says. "I guess it just clicked for both of us at the perfect time."

With Randolph under contract for two more seasons and Gasol heading toward free agency this summer, the Grizzlies hope to extend the relationship. For now, they are happy to bear witness to more dual domination. And Randolph, who led the charge when the Grizzlies first re-emerged into relevance, is happy to have Gasol out front for a change.

"I've always seen it. I've just been waiting on him," Randolph says of Gasol's new aggressiveness. "Some people find it earlier, some people find it later.

"I helped him out a little bit," Randolph continues, laughing. "I put a little bit of that in him."

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.