March 28, 2017

When Pau Gasol was languishing in Memphis early in his career, when he was winning championships in Los Angeles and certainly when he was on a two-year layover in Chicago, there was always the feeling that he would be the perfect fit for the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs have long had a reputation for favoring versatile, playmaking international players, and Gasol's name belongs near the very top when discussing the most impactful Europeans to come to the NBA.

In their first season together, Gasol has been everything the Spurs expected, and more. The 36-year-old Spaniard's scoring and rebounding has been there as usual.

But he has also added the 3-point shot to his arsenal, adapting to the changing demands on big men in this pace-and-space era while opening things up for LaMarcus Aldridge in the paint.

''I'm trying to survive in this league that is evolving continuously,'' Gasol told reporters in San Antonio after the Spurs beat the Sacramento Kings last week.

Gasol is taking 3.1 3-pointers per 100 possessions this season, more than double the number of attempts he put up with the Bulls last season, according to basketball-reference.com.

Prior to that, he made his living almost exclusively from the elbows down to the post. In his first 14 seasons in the league, Gasol only averaged more than 0.6 3s per 100 possessions one time.

Even better for the Spurs - he's making them.

Gasol is shooting 53.5 percent from 3-point range this season, and a scorching 60.5 percent in the 17 games he has played since returning from a broken left hand on Feb. 24.

He is 9 for 13 from deep during a five-game winning streak that has helped the Spurs pull within two games of Golden State for the top seed in the Western Conference, with the Warriors coming to San Antonio on Wednesday night.

''He's fulfilled all of our expectations,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. ''There were really no surprises. If anything, he's shooting the 3 more than he has before. That's been the biggest difference. We didn't expect that.''

While so much of the league has turned to smaller lineups to try to keep up with the Warriors, the Spurs have gotten bigger with Gasol, Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard and Dewayne Dedmon in the frontcourt.

That makes Gasol's evolution even more important so the offense doesn't clog up among all that bulk. He hit both of his 3s in a blowout win over Cleveland on Monday night and went 3 for 4 from deep in a win over the Knicks last weekend.

''We didn't sit him down and say now Pau, part of your role is going to be (shooting 3s),'' Popovich said. ''But it's sort of evolved with the spacing and the way we do things with LaMarcus out there. It just evolved that way. He's been successful at it so we just kind of let it roll.''

It has also unlocked even more from Aldridge, who has looked more comfortable and formidable this season than he did in his first year in San Antonio.

''Playing with him has been fun for me, just seeing how easy he makes the game out there,'' Aldridge said.

It's not the only adjustment Gasol has had to make. After being a starter for almost all of his 16 seasons in the league, he has come off the bench for all 17 games in which he has played since returning from injury.

The move has given the Spurs more offensive punch with the second unit and has also allowed Popovich to keep Gasol's minutes down to a career-low 25.5 per game in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

''We had an open discussion and he felt pretty sure about it, pretty confident that it was going to make a positive impact and I think it has,'' Gasol said of his conversations with Popovich before moving to the bench. ''It has made us better and I think our record shows.''

With the Cavaliers struggling on defense and the Warriors still not whole while they await Kevin Durant's return from a knee injury, the Spurs are very much in the hunt in their first season without Tim Duncan. And that's right where Gasol expected them to be when he chose to sign with San Antonio last summer.

''Right now we're the second-best record in the league and we're in a good spot,'' Gasol said. ''That was the key reason why I came here.''

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