It was easy to hear the groans from courtside Monday night whenever Pau Gasol touched the ball. Despite his leading the team in scoring, shooting over 50 percent from the floor, and dishing out five assists, Grizzlies fans didn't want the ball in the hands of their budding star during the fourth quarter of a tight game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And though I've been as much a defender of Gasol's game as anyone in the Memphis media, it was hard to fault the fans on this night.
Gasol has exploded for some big scoring stretches this season. He's done it in the first quarter, in the second, in the third. But it hasn't happened in the fourth quarter, not in a tight game, not when it matters most. Not once.
Gasol's performance in the Grizzlies' 92-86 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers was perhaps his most Jekyll-and-Hyde game of the season. He scored -- getting whatever shot he wanted against whatever defender Cavs coach Paul Silas threw at him and making most of them. He passed -- a behind-the-back bounce pass against a double-team to Lorenzen Wright for an open dunk was the prettiest Grizzlies play of the game. But he also turned the ball over --seven times, which just killed the team. And he also missed free throws -- flubbing six of nine on the game and three of four down the stretch. And in the fourth quarter everything went wrong.
The NBA Web-site 82 games.com tracks what it calls "clutch" stats for every NBA player. The site's definition of clutch is the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime periods in which the score of a game is within a five-point margin. By this measure, Gasol has been simply awful in the clutch so far this season, especially when compared to his overall performance. Gasol's 50 percent shooting on the season falls to a hideous 25 percent in the clutch. His 60 percent shooting in the paint for the season plummets to an unspeakable 33 percent. His 74 percent free-throw shooting on the season declines to an unbearable 44 percent. And while 11 percent of Gasol's shots have been blocked on the season, a full quarter of his attempts have been rejected in the clutch. It's hard to argue with the cold, hard facts.
Because Gasol's late-game play has been so terrible this season, and because so many Grizzlies fans are so much quicker to jump on Gasol than other players, it's easy to forget that he hasn't always performed so poorly in these situations.
Gasol's clutch stats were quite good last season, and there were several tight games where he came up big. There was his 10-point fourth-quarter in a comeback at Cleveland that the Grizzlies eventually won in double overtime. There was the game at Detroit, lost at the end on a controversial call, where Gasol scored nine points in the last five minutes against Ben Wallace, the league's finest frontcourt defender. There was the home game against Golden State, in which Gasol was booed for poor rebounding but responded with eight points in the final five minutes to spur a come-from-behind victory. And there were others.
All of this suggested that Gasol's growth curve was still on the rise and that he would develop into the late-game go-to guy his team desperately needed. That he rebounded from a poor first game in the playoffs to score at a 60 percent clip against the San Antonio Spurs bolstered that feeling, as did Gasol's sublime play in this summer's Olympics. But so far this season, it hasn't happened. Not once.
It's especially frustrating since, on the whole, Gasol has been better than ever. His scoring and rebounding are both up on a per-minute basis. Statistically, Gasol has outperformed comparable power forwards commonly considered superior players: Elton Brand, Zach Randolph, Kenyon Martin, Chris Webber.
But all of that will only matter so much if Gasol can't conjure more late-game heroics, and he knows it. In this precarious season for the Memphis Grizzlies, the fourth quarter has become Gasol's nemesis. It's the Goliath to his David; the Apollo Creed to his Rocky Balboa; the English language to his George W. Bush: It's the mountain he must climb in order to become whole. •