Marc Gasol has been back with the Memphis Grizzlies for almost seven weeks, but he has not fully been back until now. Gasol is still laboring up and down the court, thanks to a cumbersome knee brace, but if you pay close attention, you can see the Marc Gasol that was All-NBA Second Team last season. In a 110-104 victory over the Washington Wizards, Gasol dished out eight assists, had three blocks, three steals and helped anchor a defense that only allowed 34 points in the paint. Sure, most people will look at the 10 points and seven boards, then assume Gasol had an off night, but nights like Monday evening are what make him the most valuable piece for the Memphis Grizzlies.
In the past five games Gasol is averaging 15.6 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting, both of which are higher than his season and career averages, but it was the extra zip on his passes, and more pep in his step against the Wizards that showed he is back to being his old self.
Last season Gasol lead the league in elbow touches, which is where he was the leader of the Grizzlies offense. It wasn’t the most efficient offense, but it led to very few turnovers, lots of post feeds to Zach Randolph, and the occasional free throw line jumper for Gasol. This season Memphis decided they wanted to play faster. Gasol saw the ball less, and super-quick point guard Mike Conley took more control of the offense. Conley has been great in his new role, but there is a calming effect that hovers over this team when the ball is in Gasol’s hands at the elbows.
There were a few particularly memorable instances on Monday where Gasol displayed that keen passing ability that make him so important. First, Gasol caught the ball off of a side inbounds play, Nick Calathes came up to set a screen for Mike Miller, and in a split second he slipped the screen and dove towards the basket to receive a one-handed bounce pass from Gasol for an easy layup. Another time was when he caught it on the elbow unguarded, and drove to the basket, only to lay it off with a nifty bounce pass to Randolph for the layup. These are the plays that Gasol can make for teammates to get them easy looks, and get them into the flow of the game if they are having an off night.
Gasol will not be a repeat recipient of the Defensive Player of the Year award, or a return selection to an All-NBA team, because his season has been slowed by injury. If Gasol can get back to that high level, or at least sustain the level he has shown over the past week, he will be just as valuable for the remainder of this season as he was last season. And if that is the case, Memphis could end up with another trip to the Western Conference Finals.