Kevin Durant is a nice guy. He’s also a cold-blooded competitor.
“I usually don’t talk to the opposing team at all,” Durant said after he dropped 37 points on the Grizzlies. “But I saw him flagging me down. I told him, ‘Welcome back.’ He is one of those players. I don’t ever want to see a guy get injured.”
Durant, of course, was speaking of Grizzlies All-Star center Marc Gasol. And yes, he is “one of those players.”
One of those players who is so much more than whatever the stat sheet says he is on a given night. One of those players who is so much more than his numbers tell you at season’s end.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
For 23 games this season, the Grizzlies lived without Gasol. They went 10-13 and at their worst they looked downright helpless. Their sorry state inspired national debate about when they should start “tanking” to perhaps get a luckier draw in the NBA Draft Lottery.
But after Gasol and the Grizzlies sent Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder away from FedExForum on the short end of a 90-87 score Tuesday, Jan. 14, the local hoops world is a happier place.
Even before the game started, there were elementary children from Lausanne Collegiate School – where Gasol went to high school while older brother Pau played for the Grizzlies – offering up a sweet rendition of the National Anthem. It was another nice “welcome back.”
Then the starting lineups were introduced and the crowd went crazy.
“I got the goose bumps for a minute or two,” Gasol said. “I felt like a rookie again. Today was a special day for me. But we move on, think about Milwaukee.”
He was referring to the game the Grizzlies would play at Milwaukee the next night. That’s Gasol – always concerned with the business at hand.
He suffered a left MCL sprain in the second quarter of the Nov. 22 game here against San Antonio. A 16-point loss would follow and so would a five-game losing streak in December and much gnashing of teeth.
The season turned into a basketball reality show – “Memphis Survivor.” The thought was if the Grizzlies could stay near .500 until Gasol returned, they would have a chance to make a playoff push. The victory over OKC got them to 18-19, and a sluggish win against Milwaukee the next night got the Grizz to .500.
So there is now hope again in Hoop City.
Gasol’s return “surprised” even point guard Mike Conley and the rest of his teammates. They didn’t know Gasol was in the lineup for sure until Tuesday night. He was gone long enough that against OKC he played with shooting guard Courtney Lee (acquired from Boston for Jerryd Bayless this month) and forward James Johnson (signed out of the D-League in December) for the first time.
“JJ and C-Lee are really good basketball players. They are unselfish,” Gasol said. “They fit right in.”
Gasol backed up the “unselfish” talk, and last season’s Defensive-Player-of-the-Year status, when he took a charge from Durant late in the fourth quarter. That said far more than his 12 points and four rebounds in 24 minutes. Especially because Memphis coach Dave Joerger believed the Grizzlies had passed up “four or five opportunities to take charges” in the first half. “I was not real happy about that.”
The timing of “Big Spain’s” return appears to be something of a miracle, given that Gasol was not running a couple of weeks ago and practiced with contact for the first time on Monday.
“The barbecue sauce,” Gasol said of the elixir that made this possible.
We know better.
Gasol wanted to get back sooner rather than later – “it’s time to do your job,” he said in a pre-game clip that played on the video board and got the crowd going – and now he has his own ideas about shedding that brace on his knee.
“They want me to wear it for at least four weeks,” he said, letting a smile slip out around the corners of his mouth. “We will see about that.”
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.