- Marc Gasol saw his role diminish when he got traded to the Raptors but he embraced it and has been a positive presence around Kawhi Leonard and Co. While he might not be who he used to be, he remains a necessary piece for Toronto to pull off the upset vs. Golden State.
There are a trio of key factors that need to break right for the Raptors to dethrone the Warriors as Golden State guns for just the fourth three-peat since 1970. Toronto’s Finals chances largely start and end with Kawhi Leonard, who will clearly need to be the best player on the floor over the next seven games. The 2014 Finals MVP decimated Philadelphia and cruised past Milwaukee. Draymond Green and Co. present a steeper challenge, though not an impossible barrier to a ring.
Part two of Toronto’s Finals hopes sits outside of its control. A healthy Kevin Durant by the time the series heads to Golden State will likely spell death for Toronto, especially if the series sits tied at 1–1. No Durant leaves the Raptors close to an even playing field, especially with home-court advantage. If Game 5 against Houston was Durant’s last game in Golden State, the door is open for the current iteration of the Warriors dynasty to end with a dud.
We’ll wait for the armchair analysis of Durant’s calf, and you can find a preview of the challenge ahead of Leonard here. For now, let’s move to the final turning point of the Finals: Marc Gasol, an aging former All-Star with a wide range of outcomes. Gasol at his best could stifle the Warriors and fuel Toronto’s half-court attack. But a subpar effort may relegate the Spanish center to the bench earlier than expected, slicing Nick Nurse’s thin rotation once again. It’s hard to envision Masai Ujiri lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy without a strong performance from his midseason acquisition.
It wasn’t exactly an easy adjustment for Gasol in his first few months in Toronto after February’s trade deadline. After 11 seasons in Memphis, Gasol was forced to morph from offensive fulcrum to role player, sacrificing both shots and minutes in a new locale. Gasol logged under 30 minutes per game for the first time in his career in the Toronto portion of 2018-19, dipping below 10 points per game for the first time as well. Gasol’s minutes were cannibalized by Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, especially when Nurse opted for small-ball lineups. Kawhi Leonard is the headliner and Nurse has plenty of mouths to feed. Gasol’s offensive opportunity was sizably slashed.
Gasol didn’t pout with a lightened workload. He embraced Nurse’s rotation and a diminished role, which is not necessarily a surprise for one of the league’s most thoughtful superstars. Toronto closed the season with 18 wins in Gasol’s 26 appearances and snagged the No. 2 seed in the East. The Raptors rallied around Gasol’s unselfish ethos, meshing Leonard’s isolation expertise with San-Antonio-style passing. You can occasionally squint and see Gasol playing a facsimile of late-career Tim Duncan. The All-NBA Gasol still lurks behind his worn face.
A peak performance from Gasol could cause the Warriors some serious issues, especially the Durant-less version. Added stretch from the five can open up at least a semblance of room for Leonard, a necessity in minutes when Gasol shares the floor with Siakam. Toronto can survive with one non-shooter on the floor; two is a death sentence. Gasol is an efficient enough shooter, and a downright impressive one in the second half of 2018-19. He’s hitting a cool 40% from three in the postseason, which is even a tick down from his 44.2% mark with Toronto in the regular season. The percentages have never been the problem. Gasol’s attempts need to climb.
You could see the Toronto bench imploring Gasol to pull the trigger from three throughout the postseason. He spent much of the Philadelphia series in a major funk, pump faking and pausing the action at the perimeter on every catch. Gasol–and his brother Pau–would have likely been ashamed at the film, watching such a heady passer clogging the action. But the bad habits dissipated in the conference finals. Gasol let it fly with abandon in Games 3 and 4, two of the finer games of his illustrious career. He averaged 16.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and seven assists in the pair of victories, canning seven threes on 14 attempts. His early buckers cooled the nerves of an anxious Toronto crowd, resetting the series with confidence. A similar tone setter would go a long way to beating Golden State on Thursday.
Gasol is far from the most mobile big, but he’s canny enough to hold his own in isolation. He’s passable against smaller guards, and could fare better against Steph Curry than the likes of Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela. Curry is an impossible cover, especially during his recent run of dominance. Yet even a few won possessions can swing a game. Gasol may be able to remain on the floor if the Warriors unleash the Death Lineup late.
There’s also a certain trust with Gasol anchoring a back line. Golden State torched Portland in the pick-and-roll, with either a Curry switch or Green roll punishing the likes of Enes Kanter, Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins. Green was magnificent tumbling downhill on the 4-on-3. He converted floaters, tricked his way to lobs and found the Splash Brothers outside. “Can’t Play Kanter” reemerged and the rest of Portland’s bigs struggled throughout the sweep.
It takes a certain level of experience to slow the Green-Curry pick-and-roll, and Portland wasn’t up to the task. Gasol could be, even with diminished athleticism. He’s one of the slyest defenders in the league, capable of slotting himself perfectly halfway between two options. Most defenders will sag too far and allow a Green layup, then panic and jump at the next drive. Two lobs and a three later, and the opposing coach is forced to call a timeout. Gasol won’t panic after a few makes from Green. He’ll hold his ground and rotate well. The brain may matter more than the brawn against the Warriors’ machine.
There's a natural inclination for Toronto to go small in the Finals, riding the Ibaka-Leonard-Siakam frontcourt to switch everything in sight. It would mirror Houston’s successful formula in 2018, and it may become a necessity if Curry starts raining threes. Yet if the series slows to a pace more comfortable for Leonard and the Raptors, Gasol’s presence could be invaluable. He’s a strong rebounder and sturdy paint presence. He’ll limit the turnovers and can be looked to late in the shot clock, capable of producing points on the block or in a two-man game with Leonard. Gasol’s head nod to Leonard followed by a backdoor pass and dunk is one of Toronto’s postseason highlights, illuminating the bond formed by the Raptors veterans in a short time. The 34-year-old isn’t who he used to be, but he remains a necessary piece for Toronto to pull off the upset.