MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In the end, the Memphis Grizzlies came up big — again — figuratively and literally to leave the Sixers shaking their heads yet one more time.
Marc Gasol had 26 points and 12 rebounds and Zach Randolph, playing for the first time since his mother’s death on Thanksgiving Day, came up with eight of his 12 points in the fourth quarter and 14 rebounds as the Grizzlies escaped with a 96-91 decision over the Sixers Tuesday night before 13,521 at FedEx Forum.
The Sixers’ young stable of bigs were either on mandatory rest (Joel Embiid) on this second night of a back-to-back, or back in Philadelphia with various ailments (Jahlil Okafor, gastroenteritis) and Nerlens Noel (knee). And despite 23 points and 17 rebounds by Ersan Ilyasova and 17 points from Dario Saric, the Sixers had no answers when the Grizzlies went into grit-and-grind mode in the paint as they were outscored 52-43 in the lane.
The Sixers took a 91-89 lead on a basket by Dario Saric with 1:57 to play, but the Grizzlies scored the final six points on baskets by Gasol and Randolph and two free throws by JaMychal Green, who chipped in 13 points and 10 boards. It was the Grizzlies’ ninth straight win over the Sixers and they are now 11-0 this season in games decided by five or fewer points or overtime.
The Grizzlies shot just 38 percent for the game and 2 of 17 from distance. But the Sixers' eighth straight loss came in part because they shot just 13 of 26 from the foul line, were outrebounded, 53-45, committed 16 turnovers and gave up a 19-9 edge on second-chance points.
“They have a program built over the years on toughness, the halfcourt and defense and being masterful at working high-lows,” Sixers coach Brent Brown said prior to tip-off. “That style hasn’t changed, and even when they lose people, the system prevails.”
Memphis is 4-1 despite the loss of Mike Conley to a pair of fractured vertebra. They have also been without Randolph, who had not played since a double overtime win in Philadelphia Nov. 23, Chandler Parsons (knee), Brandan Wright (ankle), Vince Carter (hip) and James Ennis (back).
Brown went with a starting five of Ilyasova, Richaun Holmes, Gerald Henderson, Nik Stauskas and Sergio Rodriguez looking to test the legs of a Memphis team that went to double overtime in its win Monday night at New Orleans.
“We’ve got to do something different, go the other way, stretch it out and let people shoot threes,” Brown said. “We’ve got Ersan, Richaun and Dario Saric inside and that’s pretty much it. Two of three of them are excellent three-point shooters and Holmes is an elite [pick-and-] roller. That they have Zach Randolph back doesn’t help, but that’s what you’ve got to do to steal a win.”
After three quarters, the strategy was working. The Sixers hit 13 of 32 treys in the first 36 minutes, including back-to-back triples by T.J. McConnell and Saric that gave them a 77-76 lead going into the final period.
The Grizzlies shot just 36 percent in the first half and 2 of 11 from three-point range. Randolph, who missed seven games after his mother’s sudden death, got an extended stretch to try and work some rust off.
Ilyasova hit three from distance and finished the half with 12 points. His trey with 2:03 left in the half gave the Sixers a brief 41-40 lead after they had trailed by as many as 10.
But Gasol, fresh off his second career triple-double (28 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) in New Orleans, scored seven points early and seven late and the Grizzlies took advantage of 11 Sixers turnovers to scratch out a 47-43 halftime lead.
Elton Brand, in his new job as player development consultant (see story), spent Tuesday schooling Embiid from the bench as the rookie had another mandatory night of rest on the second night of a back-to-back.
“He talks about trusting the process, but he’s frurstated. We had a tough (double-overtime) loss to Memphis at home and he wants to be out there,” Brand said. “I told him, ‘Take your time. You’re going to have a long, productive career as long as you keep on this right path."
Brown said Brand’s career résumé and time spent with these players before he retired Oct. 20 “gives him an instant passport, especially with guys like Joel.”
But on this night, when asked what he hoped Brand could bring, he said, “What I really wanted from him is 12 minutes and six fouls.”
The Sixers continue a three-game road trip in New Orleans Thursday against the Pelicans, apparently with the same intimate little group. Embiid will be able to test his chops against All-Star center Anthony Davis. But Okafor, Jerryd Bayless (wrist) and Robert Covington (knee), who did not make the trip to Memphis, were not scheduled to meet up with the team in The Big Easy, according to team officials Tuesday night. The road trip concludes Sunday in Detroit.