by CHRIS HERRINGTON
Heading into this season, second-year forward Pau Gasol was clearly recognized as the Memphis Grizzlies central building block, a reigning rookie of the year coming off a stellar performance at the World Championships. In the preseason and through the first several regular season games, Gasol gave every indication that he would become one of the NBAs most dominant offensive big men sooner rather than later. But a 13-game losing streak, a tumultuous coaching change, and an on-court slump took some of the shine off Gasols game. He has struggled to find a rhythm and role in new coach Hubie Browns share-the-ball motion offense, his offensive struggles exposing his porous defensive play. A wrist injury suffered at the Worlds was revealed as more of a problem than Gasol cared to admit -- the injury and protective soft cast limiting his offensive versatility and his ability to rebound. Suddenly, a fan base frustrated with losing began to doubt Gasols stature, with trade scenarios and talk of rookie Drew Gooden as the teams real future star popping up on talk radio, on message boards, and around water coolers. In truth, many of the issues curtailing Gasols offensive production were around during the Lowe tenure as well. During eight games under Lowe, Gasol took fewer shots in more minutes than Gooden and shot the ball less frequently relative to his time on the floor than the teams other significant rookie, Gordon Giricek (not to mention frontcourt reserve Lorenzen Wright). But this was masked by Gasols efficiency, a gaudy 55 percent shooting clip that enabled him to score 21 points a game despite taking far fewer shots per game than any other 20-point scorer in the league. Under Brown, these problems have been exacerbated, with Gasols shot attempts and his effectiveness plummeting. Through Browns six-game "evaluation period," Gasol averaged 10.5 points per game on mere 40 percent shooting. And the only players taking fewer shots relative to their playing time have been point guards Brevin Knight and Earl Watson. Partly, this is a result of a breakdown in the continuity of Browns offensive sets, possibly from the quick-trigger approaches of Gooden and Giricek, but also from Gasols lack of aggressiveness and execution on the offensive end. In some ways, the teams game Saturday night against the Washington Wizards was a continuation of these problems. Gasol had a season-low five shot attempts and had only his second single-digit scoring game of the season. But there was a clear difference on the court. For one thing, the team seemed more active in trying to get Gasol the ball. Three times in the first half, Gooden spotted Gasol open around the basket but was a beat late on his pass, resulting in a turnover each time. Washington guards were regularly dropping down on Gasol in the post to deny the entry pass. The other difference is that, after some early pouting, Gasol got his head in the game and refused to let his lack of offensive touches affect his play on the other end, resulting in his most effective game yet on the boards. He was more aggressive blocking out an athletic Wizards frontline and controlled the defensive boards. Gasols defensive rebounding helped the Grizzlies stay in the game, but it was his play down the stretch that was most heartening. Through the losing streak, the Grizzlies had been in several games down the stretch but were unable to execute effectively to win. Saturday night looked to be more of the same. A nine-point Grizzlies lead was cut to nothing when Wizards point guard Tyron Lue knocked down a fadeaway jumper at the 2:57 mark to tie the game, 74-74. A series of turnovers, missed shots, and clutch play from Michael Jordan seemed to have created a familiar fourth-quarter meltdown. But, over the next two minutes, it was Gasol, not Jordan, who imposed his will on the game, sparking the Grizzlies to a 7-0 run to put the game away. Stars are supposed to take over down the stretch, and fans have wondered if the Grizzlies had anyone who could do this. On Saturday, Gasol was a finisher, but he took over in a manner most probably werent expecting -- without scoring a point. Gasol dominated the two-minute stretch with defensive rebounding, shot blocking, and passing. On the possession after Lues jumper, Gasol received the ball on the left block and, when Lue dropped down to help cover him, recognized the double team and found an open Watson at the top of the key for a three-pointer. Then, a few seconds later, came one of the most inspired sequences of Gasols young career -- the 15 seconds that won the game. Jordan drove by Shane Battier to launch a shot (1:42), but Gasol and Wright closed the lane to force a miss. Wizards forward Kwame Brown snatched the offensive rebound and went up with it, only to be blocked by Gasol with his bad hand (1:40), then Wizards guard Jerry Stackhouse launched a long jumper (1:34) over tight Wesley Person defense. He missed and Gasol grabbed the defensive rebound. At that point, Gasol paused, as if he were looking for a point guard to hand the ball to, as he typically would after a defensive rebound. Then, for some reason, he sprinted downcourt with the ball, leading the break. Just inside the free-throw line, with Wizards defender Lue backpedaling, Gasol gave Lue a skip step, head fake, and then shot a no-look pass to Person on his right for the lay-up (1:27). The best part? That he also had the presence of mind to hop slightly left after delivering the pass to avoid Lue and avoid picking up an offensive foul. A possession later, a driving Gasol found Battier open under the basket and delivered a pinpoint pass. Battier was fouled, knocked down both shots, and the game was over. Gasol had plenty of help Saturday night: Point guard Earl Watson had what might have been his best game as a pro. Battier played tough defense on a hot Jordan. And Person and Giricek delivered quietly stellar play, combining for 25 points on 10 of 19 shooting and, more importantly, holding Stackhouse to four of 19 and only two free-throw attempts. But Gasol delivered the victory. Great players make great plays at crunch time. This team hadnt had that until Saturday. Hopefully, Gasol can build on that momentum now. And hopefully, his coach and teammates can start getting him the ball.