“Give it to Marc and good things will happen.”
Leo Rautins post-game analysis eloquently summarized a wild Monday night as the Raptors hung on to outlast the Brooklyn Nets 127-125 at Scotiabank Arena. Gasol’s home debut in Toronto could not have gone much better – savvy defensive plays, trademark highlight reel passes, and a foray of post moves were all on the evening’s menu.
But Gasol wasn’t the only big man giving Brooklyn fits. Serge Ibaka chipped in for his customary under-the-radar stat line of 18 points, 12 rebounds, and a couple of blocks at the rim. The two combined for 16/22 from the field, yet shared zero minutes together. Nick Nurse was able to field a top-level centre on both ends of the floor for the entirety of the game. And the rest of the Eastern conference should be concerned.
After Toronto traded for Gasol, Nick Nurse said that he would experiment with various lineups. This is nothing new – Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry have both missed double digit games this year and Fred Van Vleet is set to miss several weeks with a thumb injury. However, with 24 games remaining in the regular season it is critical to get continuity and familiarity among the new personnel.
Both Gasol and Ibaka are going to be essential in the playoffs, so how should they share the workload?
Comfort with the starters
Ibaka’s bounce back year has come with his newfound role as the small ball centre for the starting unit. He is shooting his highest percentage ever from two-point range while posting career highs in field goal attempts and points per game.
“Serge is used to starting, I think Serge has earned that and played his butt off this year,” Nurse said of Ibaka.
On Monday night, Ibaka played all of his minutes – barring early entrances from Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw – with the starters. The centre was the most aggressive Raptor on the floor to open each half; the entirety of his points coming in those two opening shifts.
In contrast, Ibaka was far more docile in his four minute stints at the tail end of each half. Leonard and Lowry asserted themselves in these stanzas, which is to be expected from the two best players. Still, it is hard not to envision Gasol providing far easier looks for them both in the closing periods.
Ibaka has carved out a very specific and stable role in Toronto. He is now offering a consistent source of points, missing out on double digit scoring in only 12 per cent of games thus far compared to 30.5 per cent last season, including playoffs. The centre’s mid-range shooting has been one of the only constants amidst a season consistently dealing injury blows and player overhauls. Yanking Ibaka from the starting lineup this far into the season could shatter a player that relies on rhythm in his game. During the nine games that Ibaka came off the bench this season, his points per game and field percentage dipped from 16.8 and 53.5 per cent to 12.6 and 48.3 per cent respectively (similar to his numbers last year).
This is not to say that Ibaka must receive heavy starter level minutes, but rather the minutes he plays should be alongside starters. More specifically, with Lowry. Ibaka and Lowry have formed a telekinetic relationship, the latter constantly looking to engage the big man early in proceedings. It would be prudent to link Ibaka’s minutes with Lowry in a similar fashion to Joel Embiid and JJ Redick’s rotational relationship in Philadelphia.
Although he does cover up plenty of defensive mishaps as a shot blocker, Ibaka does not necessarily make others around him better on the offensive end. He needs to get the ball in his spots in order to be effective – 81 per cent of his baskets have been assisted. It makes sense to surround Ibaka with players that have reinvigorated his offensive game.
Waking up the bench mob
But – and you can be forgiven if you forgot this a week ago – Gasol is just so damn good. He may not start, but Gasol must finish games for the Raptors.
The arrival of Big Spain has woken the bench mob from their mid-season siestas. Gasol has already formed a slick partnership with Powell and was a huge factor in McCaw’s breakout game Monday.
It is clear that Gasol makes others better. He was instrumental as a passer and screener during his eleven minute stretch in the first half. The crowd erupted when the Spaniard checked in and he responded by reviving Toronto’s sleepy start to the game. In the second half, Gasol’s stint was near identical. He took control scoring the ball, dominating his trusty low block. The double teams Brooklyn threw Gasol’s way were futile and by the time he checked out he had done all that he could to seal the win.
Yet, as great as it has been to watch Gasol devour opposition benches, it is time to explore how far he can raise the ceiling of their best lineup.
The Kawhi Effect
I have hope that Gasol could become the bridge that finally integrates Leonard into the offense. It is no secret that Leonard’s game has existed outside the orbit of the Raptors’ system, his sheer talent alone has made amends for the awkward fit. To be fair, even Gregg Popovich’s egalitarian offense in San Antonio increasingly offered Leonard isolation opportunities. But Gasol’s precision from the elbow will ease the load on Leonard’s tough pull-ups.
Envision Leonard in Tony Allen’s place on the clip above. Allen slashed to the rim on seemingly every play of his Grizzlies career, but there are a multitude of options available to Leonard in this type of action.
Leonard could catch and shoot at the free throw line, continue to drift towards three point range, or arc his way towards the ball to work off of a hand-off into his patented mid-range. Gasol is capable of running every single option and has already displayed his screen setting abilities.
Although Lowry and Ibaka should remain a tight partnership, Gasol entering will push Lowry into his aggressive, pitbull mode. It may be wise to start Ibaka to gain a rhythm but shrink his opening shift to around six minutes, freeing up Lowry to then become shoot-first in Gasol’s presence.
So, Ibaka and Gasol are both probably better with the starters…as you’d expect. The tricky part is slightly reducing Ibaka’s role without jeopardizing his performance. As with most frontcourt players, keeping him engaged early and often has produced Ibaka’s best performances. Another obvious factor in deciding the rotation is matchups. Gasol is no lummox and is now saddled with infinitely superior wings, but Ibaka stands a far better chance against modern centres and protecting the rim against the top athletic penetrators in the league. Hello, Boston and Milwaukee.
During the second half of games – and most importantly the closing minutes – Toronto has to shift towards Gasol. Executing late game offense is arguably the most difficult aspect of basketball and the Raptors have struggled in this facet. Gasol will remedy this. The onus for Toronto’s late game sluggishness doesn’t fall on Ibaka’s shoulders but Gasol simply provides more offensive flexibility, especially given the prospect of less double teams.
Nurse can continue to chop and change the rotation over the next few weeks, but once April rolls around Gasol must be closing out playoff games one fading hook shot at a time. It’s not about how you start, but how you finish.