Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Grizzlies' Season in Question after Gasol Injury

Marc Gasol is central to the Grizzlies' plans on offense, defense and gesturing. (Getty Images)

Adequate scoring is what worried people about the Memphis Grizzlies directly after the Rudy Gay trade, but defense is the primary concern after the news of Marc Gasol's abdominal tear sidelining the center indefinitely, possibly for the team's remaining 12 games of the regular season or longer after already missing Saturday's game against the Boston Celtics.

Losing one of the NBA's best centers would be a major hit to any team, let alone a team operating with the basis of a defense-centric strategy as the Grizzlies do. Along with forward Zach Randolph, Gasol is half of a tandem that terrifies any player thinking of entering the paint. Gasol's specialty is blocking (he is 10th in the league with 116 on the season) while Z-Bo's strength is rebounding. Pure stats display Randolph as the more active defender, as he grabs 25.2 percent of defensive boards when on the court — a number that could very well decline without the taller Gasol patrolling the interior and changing shots regardless of whether or not he successfully swats the ball.

The Grizzlies will also endure a fall-off on the offensive end of the court. Gasol isn't a prodigious scorer (14.3 points per game), but he is likely the best passing big man in the NBA. Several Memphis sets are predicated on Gasol getting touches at the elbow and either feeding the ball into the low post or passing across the lane to a teammate roaming around the perimeter.

Having already clinched a playoff berth, the only question is if the Grizzlies can maintain the Western Conference's No. 5 seed without Gasol. The talent gap between four- and five-seeds in the playoffs may not be deep, but if Memphis falls even one spot it will see the Los Angeles Clippers' young, athletic frontcourt; two and it's a repeat of the 2011 series against the Oklahoma City Thunder; three and the Grizzlies face the veteran San Antonio Spurs. A first-round series against the No. 4 Denver Nuggets is preferable to any of those scenarios.

No matter the opponent, Memphis has to hope Gasol's "day-to-day" tag is more accurate than it is generous, or else a season in which the Grizzlies were expected to be legitimate contenders in the West could turn into an exit after the first round of the playoffs.

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