The Memphis Grizzlies are surging toward the playoffs with Marc Gasol back, winning five of the first six games since he stepped back onto the court. The Grizzlies have reminded the Western Conference that they're still a team no one wants to face in the playoffs, assuaging fans' fears that injuries would thrust them into tank mode.
Gasol's efforts against Howard in back-to-back contests, including Howard's 4-of-11 performance on Saturday, show how he's spurring the most important part of the Grizzlies' rally for a playoff spot.
Renewed defensive grind
In his return, the Spaniard affirmed his status as the Grizzlies' key defensive cog.
This may have been in dispute before this season, as he and Tony Allen, Memphis' defensive leader, complemented each other, with Allen orchestrating the ball-hawking perimeter attack and Gasol protecting the rim. Gasol's absence revealed the meaning of the two to the defensive grind.
Memphis has defended much better with Gasol in the lineup and Allen out than it did with the 2-guard playing and the center missing. According to NBA.com, the Grizzlies are allowing 93.3 points per 100 possessions since Gasol's return, 14 fewer than the games with Allen but not the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Eleven times the Grizz have allowed fewer than 90 points, winning each one. Four of those came since Gasol returned.
While Allen sets the tone, Gasol has a greater effect on opponents' game plans. Aaron McGuire pointed out in an article for Gothic Ginobili that the 7-footer forces tougher choices on driving inside and makes perimeter protection easier for his teammates.
Also, Gasol creates a tough defensive interior with Zach Randolph through chemistry, communication and help. The soon-to-be 29-year-old often rotates to help his partner. Both have a strong sense of the other's capabilities.
With Gasol's help, Randolph allowed 99.5 points per 100 possessions last season. As his buddy suffered through a slow start and an injury, the 32-year-old has allowed 107 this season. However, Randolph's January split of 103 shows an improvement coinciding with Gasol's restoration of form.
Gasol is allowing 98 points per 100 possessions in the past six games, bringing his season rating to 102.
Tough defense defined the previous three Grizz campaigns. Propelled by its inside stopper, Memphis is recovering this identity en route to the playoffs.
Facilitating a multifaceted attack
Before 2013-14, Gasol operated in a modestly functional offense largely reliant upon inside scoring. The Grizzlies were 21st in field-goal percentage and 17th in offensive rating last season. Although Memphis improved a bit after the Rudy Gay trade, Mike Conley and Quincy Pondexter were the only players shooting above the league average from long range.
This year, the Grizz are 13th and 16th in the respective categories. While they still take fewer three-pointers than any other team, they have four capable shooters from that range and are 19th in three-point percentage.
Gasol should help the shooters around him reach even higher as he grows more comfortable. Last season, he led centers with four assists per game.
He serves as a secondary facilitator to Conley. Gasol generally takes the ball at the elbow, with an equal tendency to pass as to shoot.
In prior years, he had limited choices. After the Gay trade, Randolph and Conley stood as the only two other significant shooters in the lineup. Also, with Conley and Pondexter combining for 6.3 three-point attempts per game, Gasol wouldn't often set up shots beyond the arc.
With more downtown options, Gasol has reason to toss it back there.
A more accurate Grizz squad will make better on Gasol's passes.
Creating for oneself is an issue as Gasol recovers. Conley told The Commercial Appeal (subscription required) that the big man is playing off others, whereas he could work in isolation before the injury. That and his struggle to rediscover timing explain his 38 percent shooting since returning.
Continued work in games will bring Gasol closer to the 49.4 percent he shot in 2012-13.
A multidimensional attack with Gasol effectively supporting his teammates is the icing on the cake of what will be a compelling lower seed. While locking down on opponents defensively, Memphis will be more adept in staying with high-scoring teams.
The Grizz are creeping up on the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks. By April, they'll be not only on these teams' minds, but also on those of NBA Finals contenders that will encounter a bruising first-round matchup led by a rejuvenated top player.
Statistics are current through Jan. 26 games. Unless otherwise stated, advanced metrics come from Basketball-Reference.com.