In the immediate aftermath of All-Star center Marc Gasol’s knee injury, frontcourt mate Zach Randolph had a simple plan.
“Man, praying, praying,” Randolph said after Gasol limped off the FedExForum court during the Friday, Nov. 22, game won by the San Antonio Spurs. “Need him.”
Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol is out for an unknown amount of time after suffering a grade 2 sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in Friday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs. It’s an injury the team has handled before.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
Of course, at the moment, Gasol’s diagnosis was not official. Randolph – and all of Grizz Nation – held out hope that Gasol’s injury would only cost him and the team a few days. But an MRI showed Gasol has a grade 2 sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. While Gasol isn’t having surgery, he is expected to miss several weeks.
Two seasons ago, Randolph suffered a similar injury and even when he returned he wasn’t as mobile, wasn’t himself. So the Grizzlies are going to be different going forward.
“It will be difficult,” veteran Mike Miller said, “but this team has got a lot of depth. It’s a great opportunity for someone to step up and play well.”
The Grizzlies enhanced their depth with the offseason trade that sent Darrell Arthur to Denver for the Nuggets’ starting center Kosta Koufos. On a playoff team that won 57 games last season, the 7-foot, 265-pound Koufos averaged 8.0 points and 6.9 rebounds. Over five seasons, he has averaged 5.1 points and 4.3 rebounds.
Koufos has embraced his role as a bench player in Memphis and has earned Randolph’s and Gasol’s respect.
“I’ve learned a lot from Marc and Zach,” Koufos said. “I’m just going to play hard like I have been my whole career, and just learn from it and try to carry the team as best I can. I’m definitely prepared for whatever obstacle.”
The Grizzlies are not looking for Koufos to carry them, of course, and he didn’t mean it like it may have sounded, also saying, “Whatever it takes to win.”
Even with a healthy Gasol, the Spurs showed in sweeping the Grizz out of the Western Conference Finals the value of focusing on the paint and making life difficult for the bigs. The Spurs employed the same strategy last week in Memphis to great effect. Gasol only played nine minutes before his injury. Randolph managed a double-double – 16 points and 10 rebounds – but was just 5-for-15 from the floor.
“They play four on one against me,” Randolph said.
“We did a pretty good job on their bigs and Zach Randolph in particular,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “If you don’t do your work early, they will kill. So it was a big emphasis for us.”
And so it figures to be for every Grizzlies opponent. Randolph will draw that much more attention without Gasol. And neither Randolph nor Gasol is going to be as good without the other.
“They’ve been playing together a long time and so they have a really good chemistry,” Golden State forward Andre Iguodala said after the Grizzlies beat the Warriors earlier this month.
A team chemistry that already required a re-mix now must undergo another change. In sweeping the recent four-game road trip, the Grizzlies returned to their roots – defensive intensity and getting the ball to Randolph and Gasol. Now, the Grizz are left with their defense and a need for others to collectively make up the difference on offense.
The Spurs, as always, might serve as a possession-by-possession model worth emulating.
“One thing they do well is stick to their system offensively and defensively,” guard Tony Allen said. “Those guys stick to what they do for 48 minutes.”
The Grizzlies, in turn, must find a new – and effective – chemistry and cling to it. And pray that the Big Fella returns sooner rather than later.