- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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Marc Gasol was back where he belonged on Wednesday night: In the middle of the Grizzlies' offense.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Marc Gasol never quite understood how and why the Memphis offense got away from him. He expressed those sentiments after the Grizzlies coughed up a 27-point lead in Game 1 and his frustration came to a head in Game 4 in Los Angeles, when the ball was coming to him late in the shot clock or after the Clippers' help defenders had sniffed out the plan.
On Wednesday during shootaround he was asked if his dormancy in the series could be chalked up to the work of the Clippers' big men fronting him. He politely rejected that theory, pointing out that his defender wasn't the guy doing to fronting, but the Clipper big man hulking on the back line ready to pounce if the ball was delivered to Gasol at either the foul line or the low block. And, furthermore, the Grizzlies guards -- the ones charged with delivering him the ball at his preferred spots -- were getting hounded by the Clippers. So there was that, too.
Translation: I'm seven feet tall! Just pass the ball over the top of the defense and I can figure it out from there! Haven't you watched me play? And if you're not in a position to make those passes, let me know how I can help.
Granted, the Clippers have nobody to match up with Rudy Gay. And, yes, Mike Conley has become a pretty good pick-and-roll practitioner on the right side if Zach Randolph isn't clogging the right block. And of course Gasol is also your best screener, so he's often useful in other capacities.
A playoff series flows in cycles, and in Game 5 the Grizzlies returned to what's worked best for them offensively all season: Starting with Gasol as the fulcrum to leverage the Clippers' defense.
From the opening tip, the Grizzlies created a better work environment for Gasol in the half court. The Clippers' big men are mucking things up? Then have Gasol and Randolph cross low before delivering the ball to Gasol at the foul line!
Defenders are fronting Gasol at his favorite spot? Then let's find some other angles on the side. You'd rather work your offense in the middle of the floor, but sometimes games against tough opponents call for adjustments. So rather than bang your head against the wall, which the Grizzlies did over a long weekend in Los Angeles, take 80 percent of what you like and compromise on the rest.
It wasn't just Gasol's teammates and coaches who would have to accommodate. Gasol would need to work quickly, which we saw at the 4:10 mark of the first quarter when, fronted by Blake Griffin, the ball was delivered to Gasol off the right block -- but closer to the baseline. That's usually an invitation for quick help, but not if you catch and go! Gasol caught and went, spinning baseline before Griffin or any other red jersey could respond.
We saw this old friend again in Game 5. We also saw Gasol trailing in transition, where he's so dangerous.
Better yet, we saw Gasol with a renewed spirit, a mood that was a long departure from his pouty disposition in Game 4. When the Grizzlies missed him on one possession after he'd established prime position Griffin, he turned and growled at the bench after Randolph turned the ball over. If the Grizzlies needed a moment to reset, Gasol rallied his teammates into a huddle. He was emotive and feisty, feeding off a home crowd that was as eager as he was to see the ball in his hands.
It wasn't a perfect night for Gasol or the Grizzlies' offense. 18 of Gasol's 23 points came before intermission, and the Clippers' zone complicated things for Memphis. As is often the case, Memphis' anemic shooting from outside allowed the defense to gradually constrict the Grizzlies' half-court stuff -- with Gasol as the most acute victim. Watch the possessions again and you can see that the Clippers effectively ran a box-and-one, with Reggie Evans or DeAndre Jordan attached to Gasol.
But such is the nature of playoff basketball: one long exercise in problem solving. For a good, long stretch of Game 5, the Grizzlies and Gasol figured things out.