MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Gasol aims to fix fourth quarter lulls, vowing ‘I’ve got to do a better job’ closing games
By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – Normally, there’s one surefire way to shut down – or completely fire up – Marc Gasol when discussing his primary job on the court for the Grizzlies.
Just ask him about individual stats and numbers.
Then, duck for cover.
It’s not necessarily that Gasol has anything against basketball analytics or advanced metrics that add context and help frame how many NBA teams are run. Or how players are evaluated or covered in the media these days. And it’s not that Gasol despises the story that these numbers tell. He’s just thoroughly convinced, no matter what, that numbers never tell the whole story of any performance.
In other words, Gasol is captain of team Mitigating Factors.
But on this occasion, not even Gasol could resist a deep dive into his numbers to discover how steep his struggles on offense have been in the fourth quarters of recent games. Just when it seemed the Grizzlies (12-27) were starting to find some semblance of a rhythm, they’ve stumbled late in the past few games and have lost four of their last six entering Wednesday’s visit from the New Orleans Pelicans.
“I’ve got to do a better job,” Gasol flatly said. “I know what the other teams are trying to do. They’re collapsing the paint and making it so that somebody else beats them. I’ve got to do a better job of running the floor and creating better shot opportunities before the defense even sets.”
Gasol is the 7-foot-1 enigma at the center of the Grizzlies’ focus during a rare break in the schedule that’s allowed for consecutive days of practice. The team’s priority has been to find ways to first get Gasol more involved and then more aggressive in the offense late in games.
As the team’s second-leading scorer (17.5) and top rebounder (8.5) per game this season, Gasol has contributed a total of only seven points, eight rebounds, four assists and six turnovers in the fourth quarters of the past six games. That dip in production was magnified in the last two games. Memphis rallied from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter but came up short in a 102-100 loss to Washington on Friday. That setback came a game after the Grizzlies squandered a double-digit lead in the second half as the Clippers pulled away for a 113-105 win a week ago in Los Angeles.
The losses to the Wizards and Clippers came on the heels of another set of consecutive games during which Gasol didn’t attempt a field goal in the fourth quarter of either a lopsided, 114-96 win at Sacramento on Dec. 31 or a 141-128 shootout loss the previous night at Golden State. Up until the Jan. 2 game against the Clippers, Gasol had gone four straight games without a made field goal in the fourth.
Grizzlies interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff suggested it’s best to keep an open mind when it comes to overly dissecting Gasol’s recent closing performances. Contributing to the challenges, Bickerstaff said, is the fact that Gasol and leading scorer Tyreke Evans (19.7 ppg) have been the only consistent threats late in games on a team that has tweaked rotations almost nightly because of injuries or relative inexperience.
When you’re in the situation we’re in, and you’re looking at our lineup and scout us, you’re looking to take out Marc and Tyreke. That’s what teams are trying to do.-- Coach Bickerstaff on Marc Gasol
“I wouldn’t say he hasn’t been good,” Bickerstaff said of Gasol. “I think defenses are trying to take him out in the fourth quarter, and they’re sending two and three guys at him. When you’re in the situation we’re in, and you’re looking at our lineup and scout us, you’re looking to take out Marc and Tyreke. That’s what teams are trying to do. When Marc touches the ball, they send body after body after body.”
Aside from Evans, who is in the midst of his most productive season since he was 2009-10 Rookie of the Year, the Grizzlies have lacked consistent relief options to loosen opposing defenses.
Point guard catalyst Mike Conley, now working out with teammates in post-practice drills, has missed the past two months with an Achilles heel injury. Memphis has also been without the three-point shooting threat provided by forward Chandler Parsons, who has missed seven of the past 11 games related to either knee soreness or workload management.
Evans has also acknowledged he needs to do more to keep Gasol involved in the offense down the stretch when possible. Over that same six-game stretch in fourth quarters only, Evans has averaged six shot attempts, 3.2 free-throw attempts and 8.2 points on 44.8-percent overall shooting from the field. By comparison, Gasol has averaged fewer than two shots from the field, less than one free throw and just 1.2 points on 20-percent overall shooting from the field in the same period.
“When I first started starting (after Conley’s injury), I was trying to figure out how to get Marc going, and get other guys going,” Evans said of efforts to balance his scoring and facilitating. “It’s different from when you’re coming off the bench. But coach just talked to me about staying aggressive … attacking every time I get it and just going downhill and trying to find open guys.”
The objective now involves working harder to find Gasol space to operate.
“That starts with us getting stops defensively, allowing us to run and try to find gaps and space and angles for me to attack,” Gasol said. “I may have to force shots up that I might not normally take, trying to get into a rhythm. As long as you’re in rhythm, there are shots that feel a lot better. Our offense has to be more movement and stuff like that, so they can’t just collapse. So it won’t be, when you have the ball, five players always looking at you and everybody else standing around.”
Dictating offense as a dominant scorer isn’t necessarily a comfortable role for Gasol. Even last season, when he stretched his shooting beyond the arc and set career marks for three-point shooting, it wasn’t an easy adjustment for Gasol. And when former coach David Fizdale was dismissed in November after 19 games, Gasol began to take fewer threes as Bickerstaff adjusted the system for more paint touches.
For numerous reasons, Gasol has been trending toward late-game inactivity. Gasol is the only player on the roster to start all 39 games this season, and his scoring, shot attempts, free throws and shooting percentages are lower in the fourth quarters than any other period in the game. The most drastic drop-off is in Gasol’s field-goal percentage, which dips from 46.4 percent in the first quarter to 36.1 in the fourth this season. On three-pointers, it’s a drop from 37.9 percent in the first to 27.9 in the fourth.
Helping re-establish Gasol late in games requires a team-wide effort.
“We’re working on it,” Bickerstaff said. “To his credit, he could be selfish and take a bunch of bad shots. But he doesn’t. He makes the right basketball play. We’re trying to give him more space and opportunities to do his thing. As a group, though, this is where we have to make the improvement. If your (defender) goes to trap, where should you go? Where is your outlet? Where can we make guys pay?”
There are also more wrinkles to add to the offense.
“We’ve got to move him around some and make him more difficult to find,” Bickerstaff said. “And that’s on the coaches and me, primarily. If he’s always in the same spot, teams can shut that down. So we’ve got to do a better job of moving him around, making him a little more difficult to find, putting some screens in place so now his man has to chase him. But that’s on me, and we’ll do a better job of that.”
But ultimately, it’s on Gasol to assert himself consistently.
“I’ve got to do a better job,” Gasol again pointed out. “Maybe it’s more face-ups and just shooting over guys and living with that result. Although it might not be the best shot, it might be the only shot I’m going to get. But obviously, I don’t like settling that much, especially in the fourth quarter. You want to be able to attack the paint and do stuff. But the paint has been very populated lately.”
That’s not likely to change Wednesday against the Pelicans.
Not with DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis defensively roaming the lane.
“We’ve seen it,” Gasol said. “That makes you a better player, when you go through the process of seeing what other teams are doing to you. It’s never just about one player. Together, you have to figure out other ways to score and get opportunities.”
While Gasol has gone through scoreless stretches recently, he’s clearly trying to make a point now. This challenge isn’t personal. It requires effectively addressing more than his late-game stats. This is about his status as a leader, seeking a breakthrough moment alongside younger teammates trying to learn from far too many breakdowns throughout a difficult season.
Especially in the fourth quarters lately.
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