From Memphis to Toronto, Gasol brings defensive intensity & winning attitude

Aaron Rose

For the past decade, there's been a kind of aura that follows Marc Gasol around the NBA.

He's not the kind of player that's going to show up on a SportsCenter highlight tape or fills up the box score with gaudy numbers, but when Gasol is on the court, defensive intensity ramps up and good things tend to happen.

It's what has made Gasol so special to the Raptors since he was brought over from the Memphis Grizzlies a year and a half ago. He's the kind of player coaches gush over.

"He’s just all about the right things, which is first and foremost winning," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "He wants to win and he wants to be seen as the guy who really knows how to play the game, plays it the right way."

That professionalism Gasol plays with is what would have made Sunday afternoon's game against the Grizzlies so difficult for Gasol had it been played when it was initially scheduled for on March 28 in Memphis.

"I don’t think it’s an easy game to play just because there are so many emotions," Gasol said. "I’m somebody that really locks in to play and it’s not easy to say hello to all the ushers and all the people who work around the team and then try to execute the game plan and beat the other team. It’s not as simple as it seems. There are a lot of emotions. ... I like to just go there and play the game, win and then we can chit chat."

That kind of winning attitude first showed itself on the NBA stage when Gasol burst onto the scene with the "Grit and Grind" Grizzlies. It was a team known for its defensive intensity, the kind reminiscent of an earlier time before rule changes reformed the offensive game.

"It was what gave us the best chance to be the best team possible," Gasol said, reflecting on his old Grizzlies teams. "It was a team effort. Everyone that was brought in, they understood what it was about and how we were going to play and approach each and every single game. That’s just the way we worked. We were never afraid of anybody."

When that Memphis era ended and the team decided to move on at the 2019 NBA trade deadline, he brought that same intensity to Toronto.

"We kind of remind him a lot of the teams that he was on, you know, [that] didn't have a quote-unquote superstar from what the media portrays. [Teams] that play hard, you know it's gonna take a great effort every night to beat us," Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. "I think there's not a coincidence that he's a part of both groups. He's a big part of what we do here and he makes a lot of things possible and I don't know if he cares that much about praise but I'm lucky to play with him and I know he's helped my career tremendously."

Believing in coincidences here would be silly.

Last season with Gasol on the court, the Raptors had a defensive rating of 102.4. For comparison, the Milwaukee Bucks led the NBA in defensive rating as a team last year with a 104.9 defensive rating. Without Gasol, the Raptors defensive rating was 106.5, still impressive, but not nearly as impressive.

This year, those numbers have been even starker. Toronto has a defensive rating of 99 with Gasol on the court this season and 106.6 without him.

"He’s a great help defender, he’s got that big body underneath the rim that sometimes he’ll protect with," Nurse said.

Then there's the offensive side of the ball where Gasol often goes underappreciated because of his unselfish nature. He rarely touches the ball for more than a few seconds, opting instead to survey the court like a robot, searching for the optimal pass.

That kind of intellect has rubbed off on his teammates.

"I'm lucky to play with him and I know he's helped my career tremendously," VanVleet said.

"He’s helped a lot," Raptors guard Norman Powell said. "He’s let me know when he sees things, playing off the ball, he’s a great passer, great IQ."

After seeing the difference Gasol made in the postseason last year, walling off the post, protecting the paint, his health and well being are going to be crucial if Toronto is going to have a chance to repeat this year.