Marc Gasol's aggravated abdominal tear was a horrifying shock to Memphis Grizzlies fans last week. His absence flashed in the faithful the fear that the Grizzlies' title hopes could again be stunned by injuries to key players, even though Gasol missed just two games.
In 2010-11, the Grizz pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder to the limit in the Western Conference Semifinals with Rudy Gay sidelined with an elbow injury. That left many to wonder what they could have done with their leading scorer in the lineup.
Last season, Memphis lost in the first round to the Los Angeles Clippers after missing Zach Randolph for most of the season and Darrell Arthur the entire year. Randolph had just started to return to form during the series.
Grizzlies fans could reason that they have nothing to worry about because of Gasol's quick return and how he told Fox Sports Southwest reporter Rob Fischer that he's "100 percent."
However, Lionel Hollins leans hard on Gasol, pushing him through long minutes, even this late in the season. The center averages 35.3 minutes per game. He's put in 37.8 minutes per the last 10 games. December was the only month in which he played fewer than 34 minutes per game.
Hollins justified this by pointing out how close the Grizzlies are in the playoff race with eight games to go, as they are tied with the Denver Nuggets for third in the West. He told the Memphis Flyer, "At some point, I'm going to cut back on minutes, but right now it's a dogfight."
Still, as Chris Herrington pointed out in this article, it's worrisome that Hollins is playing him this much so soon after his return, considering that the initial tear occurred just two weeks earlier.
Generally, the fourth-year full-time Grizzlies head coach relies heavily on his starters. Randolph averaged 35.8 minutes per game before Hollins began to taper his minutes in the last seven games. Mike Conley is punching in 34.6 minutes per game, including 36.1 per game since February.
Hollins might know who he trusts, but it comes to a fault. Not only does he give short shrift to the reserves, but he also runs the risk of seeing his two key facilitators, Conley and Gasol, get injured.
As hard as the Grizzlies must work to claim the third spot in the West with a West Coast road trip coming up and a tough back-to-back the following week against the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, Gasol and Conley will need some rest.
Anyhow, the Grizz may not have an easy way of giving them oxygen. The Nuggets have an easier path to the finish, with three road games left and three against winning teams—one fewer than Memphis.
Hollins may need to make tough decisions to sit them down. That includes rotating in new acquisition Keyon Dooling to see if he still has the legs to handle 10 minutes in the playoffs and giving Dexter Pittman 10 to see if he can do the same.
Darrell Arthur, who has been up and down, could use more time so that Hollins has confidence in him come playoff time. He's missed 21 games due to injury. After failing to score 10 in a two-month span, he put up 15 or more twice in a week.
Moreover, most Memphis bench players need more time to see if they can cut it in the playoffs. Jerryd Bayless is the only one to have played three-quarters of their games. Particularly in the interest of protecting Gasol, no Grizz big man is averaging 17 minutes per game.
The time should soon come when Hollins tempers Conley and Gasol's playing time. Otherwise, an injury could occur that causes Grizzlies fans to wonder what could have been for a third straight year.