Memphis Grizzlies fans were given a real surprise on Tuesday night (Jan. 14). All-Star center Marc Gasol hit the floor of the FedExForum to start against one of the top teams in the NBA after missing 23 consecutive games with a left knee injury.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year sported a black brace but it didn't get in the way of helping his team outlast the Oklahoma City Thunder 90 to 87 in a high-energy game that kept the crowd on edge.
Gasol's return triggered a standing ovation from the 17,177 in attendance. He responded with 12 points in 24 minutes of play.
"I got goose bumps for about a minute, or two minutes. I felt like I was a rookie again, even better than that. Today was a special day for me, but we move on," Gasol said.
Courtney Lee led the Grizzlies with 24 points in his second start in Memphis. Lee scored 14 points in the first quarter, with Memphis building a lead that ballooned to 12 points during the period. He made big plays throughout the game, helping the Grizzlies withstand a determined Thunder team that signaled its intention to be in it until the end with a second-quarter rally.
"Our team chemistry is as good as I've seen it in several years," said Grizz head coach Dave Joerger. "Right now, the ball is moving. I thought Courtney Lee did a really nice job. What we talked about before the game was, try not to play as if Marc (Gasol) is a new player. Just play."
The Grizzlies went into the half trailing by four (47-43). They entered the third quarter with aggression and more cohesiveness outscoring the Thunder 29-20. Lee hit a jumper as the quarter closed, punctuating a Memphis run that produced a 72-67 lead entering the final period.
Kevin Durant made sure the Thunder – playing without injured star guard Russell Westbrook, had a chance to win, leading all scorers with 37 points. Going into the game, Durant was questionable after missing practice on Monday due to a left wrist injury.
"We were able to give ourselves the chance there at the end of the game," Durant said. "There are no moral victories. We are pissed off that we lost the game. We had a chance to win with no matter who was on the court. It was a tough loss for us."
The Thunder game plan called for the double-team defense of Memphis forward Zach Randolph, who still finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds. OKC also came in wary of starting guard Mike Conley, who still finished with 19 points and seven assists. But the Thunder clearly had not adequately prepared for Lee.
"Courtney Lee had his way," said Thunder head coach Scott Brooks.
"We didn't do a good job of starting the game off on him. Throughout the game he sprinkled in some big shots. We can't afford for that to happen. They have some really good players. He was the wild card that we didn't want to happen. He had too many good looks. In a game like those, we can't give a guy that many points. I thought it was a well-played game. They are a tough, physical team."
Reggie Jackson finished with 17 points and Serge Ibaka pitched in 11 for the Thunder.
NOTE: The Grizzlies will face the Milwaukee Bucks on the road tonight, before returning to the FedExForum to play former Grizz Rudy Gay and the Sacramento Kings on Friday (Jan. 17).