Gasol’s surprise return sparks Grizzlies

Marc Gasol played for the first time since November 22.

MEMPHIS — Only the return of Elvis would have pleased the city of Memphis more.

And until the rest of the country saw the score, most people would have been more likely to believe Elvis’ return.

After 23 games on the shelf with a Grade 2 MCL sprain, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol returned to the lineup — the starting lineup — Tuesday night. His 12 points helped Memphis beat Oklahoma City 90-87.

"It felt well. It felt good," Gasol said, "especially because we got the win. That’s what makes everything worth it."

The points helped, but the presence helped more, reviving a team that has won three straight and is showing signs of the life it lived as a Western Conference finalist last season

Gasol had four rebounds in 24 minutes, more than Memphis coach Dave Joerger wanted to play him against physical OKC. But competitiveness took over.

"To start is what is right to a guy who means so much to our franchise," Joerger said. "It was a great lift."

There had been no timetable for his return and no one knew he was returning until about an hour before the tip. 

Gasol went down on Nov. 22 and wasn’t expected back maybe until February. But he raised eyebrows when spotted on the court at Monday’s practice.

"We’ve all been excited just having him back on the court at practice, watching him work out on the side," Joerger said. "Our chemistry is as good as I’ve seen it in several years. What we talked about before the game, is try not to play like Marc is a new player."

Wearing a brace on his left leg, the crowd erupted at his introduction. 

"I got the goose bumps for about two minutes," Gasol said. "I felt like a rookie again and even better than that. It was a special day for me, but we move on. We are thinking about Milwaukee." 

The first Gasol-like bucket got Memphis within a point in the third quarter when he turned around for a 7-footer over Serge Ibaka. He followed that with a pair of free throws that put the Grizzlies in front.

The plan even at shootaround wasn’t to play Gasol. But how he responded to some player-requested 5-on-5, to help him along, got him in the lineup. It was an important move. There won’t be much practice time for evaluation with games Wednesday and Friday.

"Yesterday," Gasol said, then smiled, when asked when he knew he would play.

It adds to a team that has started to play well after a rocky start under Joerger. The win gets Memphis (18-19) within a game of .500.

He had a no-look pass to Zach Randolph in the first quarter — the kind of pass few big men can execute, the kind Memphis fans have missed. He played 5 minutes, 23 seconds and came back in with 10:52 left in the half.

Gasol made his first shot with 8:37 left in the first half, a free throw. In the third quarter, he forced Kendrick Perkins into an offensive foul, a brazen move like a running back planting for the first time after ACL surgery.

He limped at times, that one of them.

He beat the buzzer with an impromptu make as the shot clock expired, putting Memphis ahead 86-82 with 2 minutes left. Kevin Durant, questionable before the game with a left wrist injury, answered on the other end, but not even his 37 points could spoil the mood. 

A loss to the West’s No. 3 team would have had a tough time spoiling the mood.

"He came out and hit some tough shots," Durant said. "I usually don’t talk to the opposing team at all. I saw him flagging me down. I told him, ‘Welcome back.’ He is one of those players."

Gasol had back-to-back rebounds on a Durant miss with 1:21 left and on the next possession on a shot he altered, both with a three-point lead. If the shot he took on the other end had found the net, the roof of The Forum would have landed across the way on Beale Street.

Memphis is sixth in the league in points allowed (97.6) and held OKC 18 points below their average, something else Gasol adds.

Tony Allen is still out for Memphis, Russell Westbrook out for Oklahoma City. That was a blurb.

Gasol said the big brace gave him more trouble than soreness. Asked how long the brace would be on … 

"They want me to wear it for at least four more weeks," Gasol said. "We will see about that."

No one will say missing Gasol is a good thing, but in his absence, Mike Conley has become the leader, climbing his way to one of the league’s elite point guards.

Courtney Lee was acquired for Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson was picked up from the D-League and is having an impact. But Conley is happy to be yesterday’s news. And nobody was waiting to talk with Lee — who has revived his career as a starter after being here a week. 

Lee scored a team and season-high 24 points — not to mention the game-clinching free throws — but not a single microphone was leaving Gasol, two lockers down.

"This is his team," Johnson said. "Our offense is run through him."

No one was jumping to the front of the line to talk with Joerger, either.

"You guys just want to get in the locker room," Joerger said. 

Randolph scored 23 and had 13 rebounds. Conley, who said he and Gasol can communicate without talking, had 19 and seven assists. He’s played at a level that’s not healthy for his own teammates. Nick Calathes replaced him — to a chorus of boos.

Passionate Memphis. Fans hungry for a repeat of last season’s playoff run, who think a team that has gotten better with recent additions has the sky as the limit with Gasol. 

Lee’s buzzer-beater at the end of the third quarter lit the crowd — 17,177 strong — into a frenzy. But the noise was already revved thanks to the return of Big Spain.

For the first time since the hopeful opener, there was energy in FedExForum. 

Gasol came back in with 5:36 left and Memphis up 81-78. It was an entrance worthy of "Enter Sandman" at Yankee Stadium, the city’s hero coming in to save the day.