Without Gasol, Grizzlies lineup issues worsen in loss to Rockets

MEMPHIS, Tenn. —  Marc Gasol hobbled into the Grizzlies lockerroom Monday on crutches taller than any of the reporters surrounding his locker.
The 5-minute conversation before Memphis’ 93-86 loss to the Houston Rockets didn’t really reveal anything Memphis fans didn’t already know. Gasol is out — indefinitely — with the MCL sprain he suffered Friday against the Spurs.
The loss revealed what fans already know, too. Memphis hasn’t found the recipe that got it to the Western Conference Finals.
Gasol wasn’t definitive on the exacts, like when asked exactly how long he was told he’ll be out.
“In my mind, I’m trying to beat everybody’s time,” Gasol said. “What they tell me, I know it’s conservative. They try to give me three, four, six, eight (weeks). I don’t care what number they say. I told them as soon as I can put my foot down on the floor and I can walk, I’m going to rush it.”
Things didn’t get off to a great start in his absence. A rousing start with Kosta Koufos in his place quickly dissipated when Houston scored 38 points in the fourth quarter. That’s 38 points. In the fourth quarter. With Dwight Howard on the bench. And Jeremy Lin. And James Harden in a suit. Houston had scored only 32 by the half.
Gasol’s injury is a simple diagnosis. A Grade 2 MCL sprain, where some of the tissue is partially torn. It is expected to heal without surgery. 
The sprain occurred without contact. Gasol says he’ll keep weight off the left knee for three or four weeks, then take it day-by-day. Memphis is familiar with the injury. Gasol is trying to best the standard eight-week prescription.
“It took Zach (Randolph) a little longer than Q(uincy) Pondexter to get back. Everybody’s different,” Gasol said. “I’m trying to beat that time.”
We’re about to find out whether or not Memphis’ offseason efforts paid off.
It looked good early Monday. Koufos had six points and six offensive rebounds in the first quarter. Offense wasn’t running through him. He just tipped balls alive and aggressively led the Grizzlies to 16 second-chance points by the half. But they finished with only 16. Koufos finished with eight points on 4-of-7 shooting. He had a season-high 13 boards, seven on the offensive glass. He managed three rebounds in 6 minutes in the second quarter and only three rebounds and two points in all 12 minutes of the third. He played only 4 minutes as Memphis’ lineup issues continued in the fourth.
There was plenty of bumping and banging with Dwight Howard. There is no question losing Gasol has a major impact. 
“Mark is a better passer. He’s a guy that creates offense for them a lot,” Howard said. “With Koufos, he’s just gonna get in there and play hard. He’s rugged. He’s gonna try and get all the rebounds. And that’s all you can ask for him.”
Howard spent a jovial postgame insulting Chandler Parsons’ shirt. Parsons scored a game-high 17 points. Houston got it done with a good mix of a starting five and four off the bench — all but Aaron Brooks with at least 20 minutes.
Memphis just can’t seem to find the lineup that works consistently. Joerger has been testing it all season, a test that got tougher Friday.
Joerger said his team has to make up for Gasol’s playmaking, but also needs more scoring off the bench. Guard Jerryd Bayless is struggling (8-for-39 over the last 10 games) and may move more to a two-guard to try and get more shots. Guard Nick Calathes is struggling in his rookie year. Joerger said Pondexter and Mike Miller could move to the four as the team figures out new roles and who can play lengthy minutes. Pondexter never saw the floor Monday.
Fans are showing no sympathy. A lot of them headed for the exits in the final minute, not long after booing their 7-7 home team — again.
“The principles on defense are the same,” said Grizzlies guard Tony Allen, who scored 15 points. “We’re obviously trying to go through Zach and Mike (Conley). Those are our offensive leaders. Now we’re just going to have to have more focus on the defensive end and execution when we get the ball on offense.
“We have a group in this locker room that is capable. We just have to understand that we are going to do it as a committee.”
The news wasn’t all bad, just the fourth quarter that started with an eight-point lead. Memphis held the league’s top-scoring team (109.9) to 93 points. Tayshaun Prince had a season-high 16 points and Conley a season-high 10 assists — with 10 points a double-double.
Koufos is more than capable to fill a majority of the hole left by Gasol, just a different kind of capable. He played more than 30 minutes, a mark Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said is about right. But only four of those minutes came in the fourth quarter when the wheels were coming off. 
“We’re a no excuse team for a long time,” Gasol said. “We’ve been that way for a long time. I don’t find this a good reason to be the first time we have an excuse.”