MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol was named the Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year on Wednesday, but teammate Mike Conley isn’t quite sure the 7-foot-1 Spaniard understands how much of an honor it is.
“I’m proud of him. We all congratulated him and tried to get him to understand it’s a huge award,” Conley said.
Gasol may understand exactly how much of an honor it is. It might just be that he is singularly focused on the Los Angeles Clippers at the moment.
FedExForum had plenty of buzz long after Gasol left the ceremony. Staffers colored the stadium yellow with “Growl Towels,” one on every seat for an expected sellout of 18,119 for Thursday’s Game 3 of the Western Conference first-round playoff series with Los Angeles. The Clippers hold a 2-0 advantage as the series shifts to Memphis.
“To be honest, on my mind right now is how to stop Chris [Paul] and that pick-and-roll,” Gasol said to claps from the pro-Grizzlies crowd. “That’s all I’m thinking right now and hopefully tomorrow we’ll do it.”
Teammate Zach Randolph and Memphis coach Lionel Hollins sat on the front row for the awards ceremony in the grand lobby of The Forum. Hollins was the first to tell Gasol of the award, but word spread quickly via social media Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
“I don’t know how you guys found out so quick,” Gasol said. “I don’t know how y’all did it, but it got out really quick. I didn’t tell my family, I didn’t tell anybody. Y’all are good.”
Gasol is the first player in Grizzlies history to win the award. He won it with 212 of a possible 1,089 points — 63 more than LeBron James and 90 more than Serge Ibaka. Gasol is the first European to earn the honor. The 28-year-old anchored the league’s stingiest defense (89.3 points allowed).
Gasol attached the rest of the team to the award and a couple of his teammates got in on the voting. Tony Allen placed fifth and point guard Conley got a single third-place vote of his own. Gasol had enough first-place votes alone to win the award. Joakim Noah finished fourth.
“He’s been great for us. I just try to tell other bigs, ‘Watch how Marc talks, watch how he communicates, just look at his body positioning,’” said Memphis forward Tayshaun Prince. “Obviously he’s not the fastest guy in the world … but just the way he positions himself and things like that, it makes up for a lot of things. Just the little things is what makes things so important and he does those things.”
Gasol is one of only six players to average at least 1.5 blocks per game (1.7) and a steal per game (1.0) this season. He didn’t lead the league in rebounds or blocked shots. Randolph leads the Grizzlies in rebounds and Gasol is 12th in the league in blocks. But his presence is backed up by some of the numbers. Memphis is second in the league with a 97.4 percent overall defensive rating and boasted a +7.5 score differential when Gasol was on the floor, compared to a -3.9 when he was on the bench.
Some NBA wonks praise the choice for noticing the defensive intangibles Gasol brings. He even used his shoe — it came off while running back on defense — to poke the ball away from Derrick Favors in Utah earlier this year. Prince talked about Gasol’s communication and positioning. Conley backed it up.
“He’s our anchor. He controls a lot that goes on on defense. He keeps me and TA (Allen) and Tay (Prince) all in the right positions and when we mess up, he’s there to help us,” Conley said.
Gasol attended the press conference for big brother Pau, the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2002. In a fan-attended press conference Wednesday that turned to laughs more than once, Gasol was asked if there were any more Gasols that Memphis could acquire. His Utah shoe incident created a few laughs as well.
“I was just trying to stop the game. I’m not really fast. Without the shoe, I’m a lot slower,” Gasol said, “so I had to stop the game somehow.”
Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins didn’t take it well that Gasol won the award over his teammate Ibaka. He tweeted this Tuesday night.
“I’m not hating but the NBA just give awards away. Serge don’t get defensive player of the year. That don’t make any sense. SMMFH.”
Gasol helped Memphis rank among the elite in several defensive categories: third in field-goal percentage allowed, second in 3-point percentage allowed, first in total rebounds and sixth in forced turnovers.
“We know if we want to win, we have to get stops,” he said. “That’s a little bit of everybody on that trophy. We’re not going to score 120 points every game.”