MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Marc Gasol's acceptance of the KIA NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award in the lobby of FedExForum four days ago was a muted occasion. Wearing a rare off-day suit, Gasol was gracious and classy for the crowd of sponsors, execs, teammates, coaches, special guests and media, but the timing and circumstances of the event were a bit awkward. You could sense some uneasiness from Gasol about accepting an individual award while his team trailed the Los Angeles Clippers 2-0 in a first-round playoff series.
"To be honest, my mind right now is on how to stop Chris [Paul] on the pick-and-roll," Gasol said at the podium after the presentation of the award on Wednesday. "That's what I'm thinking right now."
Gasol was given every opportunity to take a victory lap on Saturday after the Grizzlies dismantled the Clippers 104-83 in Game 4 of a first-round series that's now knotted at 2-2, but was in no mood. Reminded of how reserved he was at that news conference for Defensive Player of the Year, Gasol's rebuttal was sharp.
"And I'm still reserved now," Gasol said. "We're 2-2. We haven't done anything."
This is a reasonable response from a team that still needs to win at least one game in Los Angeles in order to advance, but in the context of the series, the Grizzlies have accomplished plenty since they landed in Memphis last Tuesday. Not only have they evened the series, but they've regained their footing defensively, found their offensive rhythm, won the battle up front and thoroughly frustrated their opponents -- as itemized quite efficiently, thank you, by Tony Allen:
"I just like the focus. We play in-and-out basketball. We go as Marc Gasol and [Zach Randolph] go. We fed those guys and we took care of the rebounding situation and played the pick-and-roll extremely well. By us making those adjustments, we were able to get the win."
The Clippers got most of they wanted in the half court in Los Angeles, and Gasol wasn't happy about it. Chris Paul was finding too much space between him and Randolph on the pick-and-roll. The Clippers' big men were successfully flipping their screens to give Paul a free reign with the ball. It was the kind of guerrilla tactic that might fool a young lottery-bound team, but shouldn't paralyze a well-heeled defensive unit like Memphis.
On Saturday, Paul still managed to split the defenders and cross over on a few occasions (there was one especially gaudy display just before halftime), but he was largely contained. Paul finished with 19 points and six assists, as the Grizzlies did a superb job of leveling him off at the point of the screen, sending him in a single direction away from the middle of the floor.
On the offensive end, the tag team of Randolph and Gasol carried the load for Memphis in the first and second halves respectively. When Randolph gets a seal on his defender beneath the basket, he's irrepressible. A sumo wrestler for the first 14 seconds of a shot clock, Randolph transforms into the world's most improbable ballerina when the ball is delivered. His soft hands, easy touch and mastery of the angles underneath tormented Blake Griffin and the Clippers' help defenders in the first half for 16 points on 8-for-11 shooting. He finished the game with 24 points.
Paul was asked to measure the Randolph of Saturday to the Randolph of two years ago who bludgeoned the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. The Clippers point guard pleaded a foggy memory.
"Zach [Randolph] can play," Paul said. "It doesn't matter about two years ago. It doesn't matter about a year ago. It's about what he's doing now."
Gasol was quiet in the first half, which prompted coach Lionel Hollins to challenge him at halftime to score more. Tony Allen characterized Hollins' address as a chewing out, though Gasol was demure about the details. Whatever the tone or substance of the halftime appeal, Gasol dominated the second half with 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting. The bounty including two buzzer-beaters -- one on an inbounds play with 0.6 seconds left on the shot clock ("We run it pretty much every time the shot clock is down like that," Gasol said.), the other a step-back jumper over Ronny Turiaf to beat the third-quarter horn. Gasol finished the game with 24 points, 13 rebounds and four assists.
"He's trouble," Randolph said of Gasol -- and Randolph is well-versed on the topic. "Seven feet tall doing what he's doing. He's a playmaker, one of the best bigs passing the ball. Shoot it. Posting up. Make plays. It's harder to defend a guy like that, especially nowadays -- there aren't too many centers in the game like him. That's why I think he's the best center in the game because of the things he does and his skill set."
Nobody in the Memphis camp found the halftime message to Gasol to be an interesting storyline (well, maybe Tony Allen, but he's easily and delightfully intrigued). Hollins is a salty motivator and Gasol is one of those players whose range of skills is so diverse, he sometimes needs help finding the balance between scoring and playmaking, between aggressiveness and deference, between the high post and low post, between power and finesse and between creating space or filling it.
"We had Zach going in the first half, so we played through Zach," Gasol said. "It doesn't matter who scores. At the end of the day what matters is that we win."
In many respects, Game 4 was a mirror image of Game 1 in Los Angeles, when the Clippers blew open a tight game in the fourth quarter by working their strengths. On Saturday, the Grizzlies controlled the middle of the floor defensively and worked the high and low posts effectively with Gasol and Randolph. Eventually, Memphis' persistence burst the dam, and it was the Clippers flying back home on Saturday evening in a foul mood.
"They manhandled us," Clippers forward Matt Barnes said. "If you're going to get beat by a team that's more talented, that's understandable. But to be punked? There's no excuse for that, and that's what's happening right now."