In what has been a fairly mundane week of basketball, an intriguing wrinkle was thrown our way; Pascal Siakam wouldn’t be starting, in fact, he wouldn’t even play. After some experimenting in New York, Nick Nurse opted to pair Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in the starting lineup. This had been theorized, and had seen something like 12 minutes of action prior to the Bulls game. New things are exciting, ask a divorce lawyer, he’ll tell you the same thing. Both Ibaka and Gasol had great games, and despite the fact that they started together, their games were worlds apart.
Gasol finished with 17-points, 8-rebounds, 6-assists and a mammoth plus-minus of +25. The explosive second quarter that featured 41 points was a byproduct of his omnipresence on offence. We saw relatively poor results in the first quarter when Gasol shared the floor with Ibaka. A motion based offence that featured Fred VanVleet as initiator, Gasol as conduit, and Jodie Meeks as assassin, blew the doors off of the Bulls. Gasol’s work as a screener, both in allowing Meeks to curl off of him, or taking up heaps of space in DHO actions was incredibly important. Not only that, but we saw Gasol spend a little more time looking for his own offense, something we’ve all been asking for.
Basketball remains a game of runs, and as such, the ability to score consistently is one of the most sought after traits league-wide. Gasol spurred on massive swings, but when the game wasn’t played at a neckbreak pace, the pick n’ pop efforts of Ibaka (paired with Lowry) provided the Raptors with an antidote to any comeback sickness the Bulls tried to throw at them. On the defensive end, Ibaka was masterful in the middle, inviting players into bad shots, and keeping them at arms reach. The trust Ibaka’s teammates have in him to hold down the middle is palpable, and allowed them to stay at home on their own assignments. A byproduct of this is that the Raptors didn’t allow a single make from the corners in this game. Little things that Ibaka does defensively have large ripple effects, this being one example.
Encouraging work from both Jeremy Lin and Norman Powell in this one. Powell has strung together 5 very solid games in a row and they’re not all impactful in the same way. He’s had prolific games from downtown, relentless attacking games, and pest-like games where his energy on defense sparks runs for the Raptors. With Lin, we basically wait to see if he’s going to navigate the pick n’ roll advantageously, and if he isn’t, it’s a tough night for him. He’s been making changes along side others on the Raptors bench to enhance his off-ball value, and we’re starting to see some dividends of that. The usage percentage has gone down, the defensive tenacity remains, and Lin is becoming less reliant on the pick n’ roll in the Raptors offense, while also keeping it in his back pocket. The trio of Powell, Meeks, and Lin all have intentions of making the playoff rotation, and they all put their best foot forward last night.
Walter Lemon Jr. is an interesting player, simply because he’s an incredible athlete. You can see when he jogs just how much bounce exists in him. His jump-shot is in a really bad place, though, and I’m not sure what the move is for many of the Bulls guards going forward, but his relentless, athletic attacking game was fun to watch in this one.
The last thing to touch on is VanVleet. The Raptors are now 22-5 when he’s in the starting lineup. He’s shooting over 44-percent from downtown on nearly 3 makes a game since his return from his thumb surgery, and the level he’s playing at currently would make him a runaway candidate for 6MOY. He showed out in front of friends and family last night, taking the reigns of the Raptors offense from Lowry and driving the “Lamborghini” that Nurse alluded to at the start of the year. If he plays at this level in the postseason he’s going to be a matchup nightmare for whatever bench guards are going to try to hang with him. He’s in serious form right now. His work in the pick n’ roll and DHO with Gasol was masterful tonight, and his pacing and feel for the game was truly Lowry-esque.
The Raptors whooped the Bulls, and they get ready to face the Magic next, who have been a real pain this season. We’ll see if the combination of Gasol and Ibaka can do a better job of containing the beastly Nikola Vucevic on April 1st.
Have a blessed day.