SAN ANTONIO — Marc Gasol momentarily raised his right arm in an exasperated shrug after Memphis Grizzlies interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff called timeout early in the third quarter, befuddled by a defensive blunder that left San Antonio Spurs wing Kyle Anderson all alone in the corner.
It was a mistake Gasol attempted to cover for by desperately lunging toward Anderson, who pump-faked, took one dribble and knocked down an easy pull-up jumper.
Gasol, surely feeling the reeling Grizzlies’ slim hopes of a skid-ending road upset slipping away after the Spurs’ 8-2 run to start the second half stretched San Antonio’s lead to 15, briefly looked down at the hardwood and shouted in frustration. He quickly collected his composure, walked toward the bench and calmly communicated to his coaches and teammates in the huddle.
Gasol’s shoulders didn’t slump. That represents progress at this point, fulfilling a promise Gasol made to control his frequently counterproductive emotional displays in the wake of David Fizdale’s firing this week, a shocking move made in large part because of the distant and deteriorating relationship between the head coach and the franchise center.
“You control your mind a little bit more,” Gasol said after Wednesday morning’s shootaround before Memphis faced San Antonio. “See what happens, understand the solutions to it, communicating with your teammates better, think about the next play. It’s all about trying to control those things.
“Obviously, if not as many things go wrong or we can do more things that work, that’s easy, too. If things work out, it’s easier to be positive, but it’s mostly me. It’s mostly me being positive and doing the things that I’m supposed to do on the floor to give confidence to my guys.”
Gasol is dealing with national scrutiny as never before. He’s been about as anonymous as a three-time All-Star can be, flanked by bigger personalities on a small-market team. Now, he’s fielding questions about being a “coach killer” while trying to figure out how to stop the bleeding as the only healthy, proven star on an injury-ravaged team.
“We don’t need him to go into a phone booth and put a cape on and be Superman. Just be Marc, and the rest will work out.”
Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace
It’s unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory as Memphis’ losing streak sits at nine games entering a weekend back-to-back — another matchup with the Spurs followed by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Gasol is the lone member of the “Core Four” currently left standing in Memphis.
Point guard Mike Conley is sidelined, but he is slated to return in two to three weeks from soreness in his left Achilles and heel. Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, the rugged veterans primarily responsible for creating and maintaining the franchise’s Grit ‘n’ Grind culture, are gone after management opted not to make offers to the aging local cult heroes when they hit free agency.
“Right now, we need Marc to be what he’s capable of, which is one of the elite centers in the league,” said general manager Chris Wallace, who is adamant that the Grizzlies won’t shift into rebuilding mode by shopping Gasol or Conley in the trade market.
“He’s the most versatile center in the league. We don’t need him to go into a phone booth and put a cape on and be Superman. Just be Marc, and the rest of the things will work out.”
More than ever, what the Grizzlies need from 32-year-old Gasol is leadership, which played a significant role in the issues between Gasol and Fizdale. It perturbed Gasol, a supremely cerebral player yet also extremely emotional, that Fizdale publicly and bluntly criticized the Grizzlies’ leaders early last season. Fizdale also made a point to call out Gasol on his bad body language.
Fizdale helped Gasol put up some of the best individual numbers of his career last season (19.5 points and 4.6 assists per game), demanding that the big man who had previously lived in the post and midrange area expand his game to become a prolific 3-point shooter, unlocking his full potential as a playmaker. But Gasol never clicked with the coach, who was otherwise quite popular among Memphis’ players, as he was as an assistant with the Miami Heat, and team sources said it reached a point that they hardly communicated at all this season.
Fizdale was fired the morning after he benched Gasol for the fourth quarter of a loss to the Brooklyn Nets, which team insiders acknowledge was clearly a case of the coach making a statement to the moody center. The belief that he got Fizdale fired bothers Gasol, who did not request or demand a coaching change and found out about the move from management after the decision was made.
“You know what the actual truth is and how things played out,” Gasol said. “What I can control is how I help these guys [on the Grizzlies], how I try to help them on the floor and obviously play better, make more shots, try to find spots where I can get away from their defense and find gaps. That I can control, and that is what I’m focused on.
“Obviously, there’s a huge gap from perception to reality, and I’m not going to try to … I’m just going to focus on my job and things I’ve got to do for this team to get back on the right track.”
Thanks to Fizdale’s popularity, the firing could have created an awkward situation for Gasol in the locker room, but other Grizzlies say that hasn’t happened. They recognize that Gasol is their best player and their leader, and everyone involved just wants to move forward and find a way to win.
“He’s been great with his teammates,” Bickerstaff said. “Everything that we’ve tried to do, the conversations that we’ve had, he’s been on board with, and he just wants to get the ship righted. I don’t think he’s paying attention to the outside stuff. He does a really good job of having blinders. Winning, to him, is the priority.”
While Conley recovered from fractures in his back early last season, Memphis managed to win seven of nine games primarily because of Gasol’s brilliance. He averaged 23.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists during that span, shooting 51.9 percent from the floor and 53.3 percent from 3-point range, and anchored a dominant defense. Gasol’s net rating during those nine games was a remarkable plus-14.9 points per 100 possessions.
In stark contrast, Gasol’s performance during the Grizzlies’ current nine-game losing streak has been part of the problem. His traditional numbers (17.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists per game) look good, but a deeper dig doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
During the skid, Gasol has shot poorly (39.0 percent from the floor, 27.8 percent from 3-point range). And he definitely hasn’t looked lately like someone who has won Defensive Player of the Year. The Grizzlies have allowed 112.2 points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the floor during the losing streak. (The Sacramento Kings have the NBA’s worst defensive rating this season at 109.1.)
There is a lot of noise with plus-minus, particularly with a relatively small sample size, but the Grizzlies have been significantly better without Gasol during the skid. The data from the nine games: Memphis has a net rating of minus-14.6 with Gasol on the floor and plus-5.8 with him on the bench.
“You first always have to look in the mirror and see what you must do better in every situation,” Gasol said. “I’ve got to shoot the ball better. I’ve got to lead the guys and overcommunicate maybe to some of them, show no negative response to anything that might happen during games or whatever it might be. That consistency and that leadership is what this team needs right now, I think.
“You obviously look back and see what you could have done differently with Coach Fizdale. That was allowing frustrations to build up on the court. That was something I’m obviously responsible for and something that I can control and something that I must control for our team to be successful.”