The Imminent Return of Marc Gasol
Reports are emerging from all over (especially from Ron Tillery of the Commercial Appeal) that Marc Gasol has returned to practice, and that while there still isn't a timetable attached to his return from a Grade 2 MCL sprain, he would seem to be very close to making some kind of a comeback within the next little bit—two weeks or so. Gasol returned to light workouts last week and has now returned to "full contact" basketball activities, and by all accounts feels very good about where he's at.
What the return of Gasol means to this Grizzlies team is hard to pin down until it actually happens; the team has finally started to play well without him in the last eight or nine games, but his presence is still clearly missed in the middle of the lane (especially on defense).
As discussed previously, Gasol's return will put the squeeze on a frontcourt rotation that is already pressed for minutes, with Kosta Koufos, Zach Randolph, Jon Leuer, Ed Davis, and now James Johnson, Occasional Power Forward soaking up time at the big man spots. With Gasol back and able to play, coach Dave Joerger has some interesting choices to make about who plays and who sits—here's hoping he doesn't return to his early-season option of "just play everybody whether they need to be played or not"—and the choices he makes have implications for the future of the Grizzlies.
One thing I'm interested to see is how well Gasol can play with the much-improved Ed Davis, and how well he functions in the small-ball lineup we saw Joerger go to at the end of the Atlanta game with Courtney Lee, Mike Miller, and James Johnson. Those shooters-and-athletic-4 lineups seem to be the most effective offensive weapons the Grizzlies have right now—and they seem to run "the system" that Joerger wanted to run all along, back in the "lose to the Raptors by 20 points" days of November.
How Gasol does with one of these hyper-athletic 4's at his side—especially Ed Davis—is going to set the tone for the season to come in terms of personnel moves yet to be made. It may have a bearing on how much the Grizzlies are willing to spend this summer to keep Davis, who'll be a restricted free agent after the year.
At any rate, the return of one of the best centers in the league to the lineup can only be a good thing, no matter how well the team is playing together. Gasol's basketball brilliance will allow him to improve whatever group he's playing with (so long as he doesn't play like the early-season fatigued Gasol about whom there was much blogosphere consternation), and when was "too many good frontcourt players" ever a bad problem to have?
Staying afloat and the schedule ahead
One thing is certain: the next couple of months of basketball are going to see the Grizzlies playing a much more balanced mix of home and road games. The current home stand is the last one of at least four games, and then the Grizzlies will be playing more back to backs and more road games, really getting into the much-lamented grind of the NBA schedule around this time of year.
Normally I'd say that would make things harder on the Grizzlies, who are two games below .500 at 17-19 and who have really only recently started playing up to their abilities. But there's a flip side to the increased travel: the opponents:
@CAGrizBeat @FlyerGrizBlog Grizz have played same number of teams over .500 in first 36 games (21) as they do in last 46. #Grizzmath
— Matt Vadnais (@MattVadnais) January 14, 2014
The Grizzlies have a lot of Eastern Conference games yet to play: two games against the Bucks, the Bobcats, the Wizards, the Cavaliers... plenty of basketball against teams who are either trying to lose or losing despite not trying to. That's not to say that the tough part of the Grizzlies' schedule is over—there are still road games at Portland to be played, and lots of division games against the Rockets, Mavericks, and Pelicans (though only one more against the Spurs). But the going gets a little easier from here, and I'm not so worried about this Grizzlies team going on the road. They've done better there this year. (Part of me still thinks Fly Lounge may be responsible for some sort of curse or hex that's been on FedExForum this season. The Ghost Of The Jack Daniel's Restaurant Thing.)
At any rate, the Grizzlies are currently 11th in the West, half a game behind Minnesota, a game and a half behind Denver, and three and a half back from 8th-place Phoenix. Dallas is in 7th currently, and Golden State ahead of them.
Seems doable, right? The Grizzlies should pass Minnesota up for the 10th spot any day now with the four games coming up against the Thunder, Bucks, Kings, and Pelicans—the Thunder, who are without Russell Westbrook again and who may be without Kevin Durant tonight in Memphis. Once they're in the 10th spot it's only three games or so to catch up to Phoenix in the last playoff spot.
Which, let's be honest, is about where the best case scenario predictions had this team at this point the second it became clear that Marc Gasol had suffered a major injury. They certainly lost some winnable games that would have them in better shape in the standings—that hot garbage loss at Denver comes to mind, for one—but overall, I think the Grizzlies have, whether through willpower or dumb luck or some Memphis-specific combination of the two (as so often seems to be the case with good things that come from this city, usually seasoned with a healthy dash of insanity), positioned themselves to make a run at the 8th spot and get into the playoffs. Which, all things considered, ain't too bad.
Tonight: Grizzlies vs. Thunder
Grizzlies fans can have one sincere hope about tonight's game against the Thunder: that Kevin Durant, questionable with a wrist injury suffered Saturday against Milwaukee, decides to sit this one out and let his wrist get better. If that happens, Grizzlies fans get to have another sincere hope: that Scott Brooks plays Kendrick Perkins for 47½ minutes.
Perkins, who joins such NBA notables as Nate Robinson and Tyler "Psycho T" Hansbrough on my "Least Favorite Active NBA Players" list, hasn't been good against the Grizzlies since, well, I don't remember. Certainly before the Z-Bo/Gasol era really got going, because both Randolph and Gasol have Perkins' number—they're in his head, and they do these neat things called "post moves" that leave Perkins flummoxed and pretending to be mad while either (a) being called for a foul or (b) being scored on.
Anyway, even without Marc Gasol to do bad things to him, the longer Perkins plays in this basketball game, the better it is for the Grizzlies.
Another key against the Thunder, Durant or no, is containing their young guards (thinking especially of Reggie Jackson, who made some serious noise against the Grizzlies in last year's playoffs, and had 17 points the last time these two teams faced off). The Grizzlies have done a terrible job on defense of keeping opposing players from attacking the paint since the first tip of the first game of this season. But they need to do a somewhat acceptable job tonight, or the excellent crop of rookies and young players that Oklahoma City has cultivated will eat their lunch.
I'm not as worried about this with Courtney Lee on the floor as I would be with Jerryd Bayless out there, but it's still an issue, especially if/when Joerger tosses out a lineup that includes long-but-not-quick Nick Calathes and Mike "wait, what's defense" Miller together at the same time in the place of Conley and Prince, who may not be doing much on offense this year, but who still mostly has his defensive skillset intact.
Not having to face Kevin Durant would make this a much easier game for the Grizzlies, especially with Tony Allen still nursing his hand injury and missing time. But, either way, this game is just one of a four-game stretch that the Grizzlies could very easily finish 3-1 if they play their cards right, and that would put them right back at the magic number: .500 and climbing.
Here's hoping Perk gets all he wants of the FedExForum floor tonight.