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 NBA's 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 Gasol's game. He has struggled to find a rhythm and role in new coach Hubie Brown's 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 Gasol's stature, with trade scenarios and talk of rookie Drew Gooden as the team's real future star popping up on talk radio, on message boards, and around water coolers.
In truth, many of the issues curtailing Gasol's 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 team's other significant rookie, Gordon Giricek (not to mention frontcourt reserve Lorenzen Wright). But this was masked by Gasol's 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 Gasol's shot attempts and his effectiveness plummeting. Through Brown's 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 Brown's offensive sets, possibly from the quick-trigger approaches of Gooden and Giricek, but also from Gasol's lack of aggressiveness and execution on the offensive end.
In some ways, the team's 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. Gasol's 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 weren't expecting -- without scoring a point. Gasol dominated the two-minute stretch with defensive rebounding, shot blocking, and passing.
On the possession after Lue's 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 Gasol's 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 hadn't had that until Saturday. Hopefully, Gasol can build on that momentum now. And hopefully, his coach and teammates can start getting him the ball.
By Chris Gadd
The little guy, actually, the littlest of guys, was able to live out a dream.
The enemy talked a lot about the home team's weaknesses -- and then backed up those tough words with even tougher actions.
And the boys in gray, white, and blue had little choice but to retaliate and face the consequences of the fallout from their large-scale counterattack. Ronald Reagan politics this was not.
But, if University of Memphis head coach John Calipari, who doubles as the school's hoops commander in chief, has his way, Reagan-style policy will soon be making a comeback.
That's why it's only fitting that unheralded walk-on Brian Mitchell pulled up for a buzzer-beating jumper from the right wing.
His shot was unsuccessful, but the University of Memphis pulled away late for a 78-54 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff at The Pyramid. After losing 81-80 in overtime Friday to Austin Peay, the Tigers defeated Pine Bluff in a hot-blooded fashion that belied the cold weather that kept many fans from making the journey downtown.
Indeed, if college basketball is a Cold War, with an underlying dislike between the two competing teams, then the Tigers' war with Pine Bluff turned rather warm. Neither the victory nor Mitchell's shot nor the cameo appearances of the other two Tiger walk-ons will be remembered by Memphis fans as much as the bench-clearing brawl that erupted with 5:37 left in the first half. Tiger players Almamy Thiero, Billy Richmond, Anthony Rice, and Clyde Wade were all tossed for their involvement; Golden Lions Antwan Emsweller, Lamarquis Blake, and Don Fleming were also ejected.
Seeing Mitchell, a University of Memphis senior who officially played one minute alongside fellow walk-ons Garrick Green and Patrick Byrne, smile while soaking up the post-game congratulations of his friends, one could almost forget about the Lions, and Tigers, and bear hugs -- oh my!
"I didn't get a real good look. I just tried to get it up there and give it a chance," said Mitchell about what was likely the first -- and last -- shot of his collegiate basketball career. "It's a good feeling, just to get the opportunity to play. Not many people get the chance to do what I did."
But it wasn't the walk-ons' play or former walk-on Nathaniel Root's shooting (he made three three-pointers) that mattered to Calipari at game's end. He cited the team's lack of intensity and began talking about their poor play, while the media contingent was visibly squirming with anticipation, hungry to ask Calipari about the fight.
When WREG Channel 3 sports editor George Lapides opened the questioning, Memphis' own Great Communicator wasted little time providing his viewpoint.
"I'm gonna be honest with you," Calipari said. "It's the Reagan-era policy: When they know that you'll fight, they won't fight you."
If Pine Bluff was playing the part of the old Soviet Union, then Golden Lion senior Kory McKee apparently forgot to take his finger off the button. And so did suspended junior Tiger point guard Antonio Burks. McKee got into a pre-game jawing match with Burks and had to be restrained by Memphis senior Chris Massie.
Burks would later say he "didn't start nothing," but McKee had a different tale.
"Well, first of all, Burks, he was looking at me, just staring me down like I was a woman," McKee said. "I mean, I don't know this man. I guess he was trying to get in my head. I asked him, 'What are you looking at?' I wasn't going to let anyone talk to me any kind of way."
By now everyone knows how the fight was started, how it ended, and who will serve suspensions.
But, according to Calipari, it never had to happen.
"Word spreads around the country that you're soft," Calipari said. "We have to have the Reagan defense. We'll just pile up weapons, and if you come after us, we're blowing you up."
Tiger fans will have no trouble fondly recalling those years of Reagan, Rubik's Cube, big hair, and even bigger national defense spending. After all, it was 1985 when a school named Memphis State last made it to the Final Four.