Grizzlies’ Gasol may be NBA’s best big man

MINNEAPOLIS – A week ago, Marc Gasol was sidelined with an abdominal tear.

He was out until the playoffs, most likely, was the word around the NBA, and the Grizzlies suddenly looked a bit less steady. They’d make it, but they wouldn’t be the force they’d been all season with their star big man, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year and perhaps even the best center in the league of late.

When Rick Adelman was planning for this game, he admits, there was a time when he planned for no Gasol. He planned for Nikola Pekovic, healthy since March 17, and he planned for once to have an advantage over Memphis in the paint.

But in a twist the Timberwolves have grown to be familiar with this season, that was not to be the case. Gasol returned from his injury – the one that was supposed to keep him out for the good part of a month – on Wednesday after two games on the bench, and Pekovic sprained his left ankle Friday night.

Advantage, Grizzlies, once again.

It would be easy to say that the mismatch at center, Greg Stiemsma on Gasol, was the reason the Timberwolves lost on Saturday, 99-86. It would be easy, but it would be simplifying things and ignoring the past. It would be easy, but it would not be correct.

The Timberwolves lost because they couldn’t hit a shot in the second half, scoring just 36 points after logging 50 in the first two quarters. They lost because the Grizzlies defense, second-best in the league and allowing opponents just 89.9 points per game, decided to come to life eventually and squeeze the Timberwolves offense until it sputtered.

They lost because Gasol scored 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting, leading the team, and because he pulled in eight rebounds. But there’s absolutely no way to say they lost because Pekovic wasn’t in there to counteract him, or even to stop him.

In two games against the Grizzlies this season, Gasol has allowed Pekovic just eight and then nine points. On Saturday, Stiemsma scored 12. In his first two games against the Timberwolves this season and lining up against Pekovic, Gasol scored nine and then 16 points, pulling in nine and then eight rebounds, respectively. His performance Saturday marked an uptick in his scoring against Minnesota, yes, but Pekovic has never had a great handle on the Memphis big man. And so Stiemsma did fine, logging a career-high 40 minutes and asserting himself far better than the average backup center with limited NBA experience would against Gasol.

“Every time I play against him I get more and more impressed (with) the way he moves, sees the floor, distributes,” Stiemsma said.

Rubio, who’s been playing against and with Gasol for years both in Spain and the U.S., can’t speak more highly of his countryman. He’s one of the top three centers in the league, the point guard said, and that compliment may actually be too modest. This year, Gasol might just be the best, his puzzlingly immediate recovery from what sounded on paper like a decently devastating injury just the latest in a season-long string of accomplishments.

“He’s doing a great job,” Rubio said. “Not only that, he knows how to play, and he’s… top in this league. He can assist like a point guard, shoot a mid-range (jumper) very well, and on defense it’s tough because he’s so big.”

Don’t blame Pekovic and that troubling ankle for this loss, not in the sense that his presence would have solved the 7-foot-1 colossus of a problem that was Gasol. He is the toughest matchup on the Grizzlies, and even a center like Pekovic, with the heft to match and a dominating presence in the pain, would have had a lot to contend with. If there’s anything to glean from the matchup that was, and then wasn’t, and then was again and finally wasn’t, it’s a lesson in toughness. Gasol didn’t let an injury stop him, and some might say Pekovic all too often does.

Saturday’s loss came down to a lot more than one matchup. It came down to a breakdown, first on offense and then on defense, and an almost crippling desperation to win the game with what Adelman called “hero plays and super plays” at the end. That’s not the approach that works against the Grizzlies, especially when the Timberwolves had utterly failed in the second half to impose their pace upon the game.

What works is grit, grunt and an even rudimentary ability to hit a shot when it matters. Minnesota, by the end, had none of that.

On Sunday, it was the injury bug again that bit the Timberwolves. It was their own injury, of course, but it was more than anything the Grizzlies’ unexpected lack thereof. Seventy-two games into this season, that should come as no surprise.

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