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Staving off Extinction: Marc Gasol shows blueprint for big man survival in exquisite performance against Warriors

Dinosaurs roamed the planet for over 165 million years, sitting comfortably atop of the food chain hierarchy. It took a meteor of historic proportions nearly 65 million years ago to rattle the existence of living creatures at that time. I won’t bore you with the scientific details, but simply put, that meteor caused shit to hit the fan for those once towering giants.

Stephen Curry has become the basketball embodiment of that devastating meteor, shaking the basketball world to its core with logic-defying three point shooting that rendered opponent big men obsolete. Old-school bigs could not score at the same rate nor as efficiently as the Warriors unparalleled outside shooting. Within a handful of years, Curry’s impact vaulted Golden State into a dynasty and simultaneously caused the 29 other teams to question the feasibility of the personnel they possessed. Teams have attempted to mimic their playing style and subsequently dumped their archaic big men like useless blu-ray machines piled on top of a scrap heap.

This league-wide trend makes it all the more poetic that the ironically-named Raptors look anything but on the precipice of elimination and their new starting centre, Marc Gasol, whose game resembles a relic of a bygone era of basketball, is still thriving.

Gasol’s game blossomed during a time when a team’s offence was predicated on post-ups, possessing two traditional bigs, and playing at a grinding pace. Heck, during the Gasol-led Grizzlies seven year playoff run spanning from 2011 to 2017, the team only surpassed the 100 point barrier in regulation thirteen times. To put that into context, the Raptors on their current playoff run have amassed 100 points or more fifteen times despite playing at one of the slowest paces in the league over the course of the postseason.

In a mere six years, the game of basketball has turned into an entirely different proposition. Yet, Gasol, 34 years-young, remains a core part of a team that is three wins away from a championship. So, how has he staved off extinction?

Defensive Intelligence

As I wrote about in my series preview, a scary element of the Warriors without Kevin Durant was the increased presence of Curry on-ball. In Game 1, Curry steered the offence with a heavy amount of pick-and-roll to test Gasol’s effectiveness away from the comfort of the painted area. The Raptors were keenly aware of this fact; Gasol and Toronto’s guards (namely Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet) moved in beautiful synchrony to snuff out even a modicum of space arising for a signature Curry pull-up three.

Gasol worked his way up on each screen with his arms spread, forcing Curry to withhold pulling the trigger on a jumper. As Curry’s man recovered, Gasol worked back onto the original screener, ferociously flailing his arms to make life more difficult.

Ironically, this is the very pick-and-roll defence that Curry himself plays on the other end of the floor to prevent getting forced into comprised switches. However, ‘tagging’ the ball handler high and scampering back to the rolling option is a hell of a lot harder when you are 7 feet tall and weigh 255 pounds. The Raptors guards were tenacious in battling through the screens while Gasol kept Curry occupied for long enough to help them scurry back into the picture. These moments may seem minute, but the fine balance pick-and-roll defenders navigate between against the greatest shooter ever is crucial. One misstep to the left or a half-second of tiredly leaving your hands by your side will result in a three. It is a physical and mental endeavour, like solving a Rubix cube while riding a unicycle. Or Chessboxing! (which is actually a real thing I’ll have you know.)

The Raptors were not selling out to trap Curry in the way that Golden State were against Kawhi Leonard which left them undermanned on the backside. Instead, Toronto executed a finely tuned dance in the-between areas to keep the Warriors second guessing their next offensive move.

After the early success against Curry, Gasol grew in confidence and aggressively attacked the other Golden State guards:

In the above clip, Patrick McCaw struggles to slither by two screens, so Gasol just decides ‘screw it’ and D’s up Warriors backup point guard Quinn Cook. My concerns that Gasol could survive against the Bucks spacey shooting dissipated as the series progressed, and this moment brought about a similar feeling. The dude is flying around the perimeter to contest absolutely everything!

When writers talk about potent two-man games, it is almost always in regards to the offensive side of the ball. Sublime pick-and-rolls, give and gos, and cross-court passes are all salivated over. Overlooked is the impact that a defensive duo can have when in lockstep with one another. What Gasol and VanVleet were able to do together defensively was utterly ridiculous. They combined for what was my second favourite play of the game:

In this play, Looney sets a screen so high that Gasol doesn’t bother to deal with the ‘hedge and recover’ tactic. VanVleet gets lost momentarily after a swift behind the back dribble by Curry, allowing the Warriors to finally get their star isolated on Gasol. Uh-oh. Well, Gasol matches Curry step-for-step and thwarts his pathway to the lane, forcing a lofted toss back in the direction of Looney. Gasol then lands a crisp right hook that pierces through Curry’s loopy pass and sends the ball skywards. VanVleet hustles towards the plummeting ball and cops an elbow to force the eventual turnover.

Now, re-watch the clip and look at Gasol bellowing to VanVleet at the top of his lungs as Looney approaches to set the screen. That is the kind of stuff that championship teams must do. Speaking of this duo, lets fast-forward 45 seconds:

Now, that was my favourite play of the game. As the old adage goes: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice in under a minute, then the Raptors win Game 1.

Filling Gaps

The Warriors dizzying motion offence is a handful to defend. However, the Raptors switchy off-ball defence and intelligent decision-making limited space all over the court. In the rare circumstances where a player did wriggle free inside, Gasol emerged as the plug that prevented the Raptors defence from leaking easy points. The Warriors finished the night with only 32 points in the paint, 12 less than their playoff average because of defensive sequences like this:

Leonard briefly loses Andre Iguodala as he is occupied by the threat that Curry presents, opening a hole on the emptied weak-side of the court. Gasol assesses the potential danger and leaves his man, the non-scoring threat Jordan Bell, to hinder Iguodala’s passage to the rim. He gets both feet out of the restricted area, absorbs Iggy’s shoulder like a dad playfighting with his son, and keeps one hand on his opponent’s hip while the other is raised straight in the air. Now, the extra few seconds Gasol provides allows the Raptors ball-hawking wing defenders to recover and stifle any passing lane.

Gasol just straight up ignored Bell’s existence when they shared the floor together, instead focusing on the few Warriors that presented a scoring threat.

This moment encapsulated the entirety of Game 1; the Raptors were a few seconds ahead on every play Thursday night.

Generating and capitalizing on mismatches

Given Leonard’s nuclear postseason run, opponents have overloaded on him and dared the other Raptors to beat them. Teams have left Gasol unattended behind the arc and hoped for the best; after some hesitant moments, Big Spain is now making opponents pay for that decision. He went 2 for 4 from deep on Game 1 and is now averaging 40.1 per cent from three in the playoffs, the best mark for any Raptor playing significant minutes.

Gasol’s aggressiveness operating out of the elbow, an area Toronto love to deploy him as a passer, set the tone offensively in Game 1.

The Warriors know that the Raptors love to shake Leonard or Lowry free when Gasol functions at the elbow, and they do a great job snuffing out Lowry’s pin-down screen in the clip above. Gasol feels how tight Bell is getting to him expecting a pass and swoops by to put pressure on the rim. Although Gasol doesn’t score on the drive, it creates a ripple effect: Draymond Green is forced to rotate towards him, subsequently leaving Curry alone to deal with Pascal Siakam at the baseline, who then picks apart his mismatch to create a wide open three for Danny Green to bust his shooting slump.

In the only regular season matchup between the teams that Leonard played in, he eviscerated the Warriors’ centres in isolation. As such, Golden State were rightly hellbent on not letting Leonard get those opportunities, yet Gasol managed to set a handful of thunderous screens which forced the fatal defensive switch that Steve Kerr has probably had nightmares of over the past week.

Iguodala and Green each getting enveloped by Gasol’s massive frame determines the outcome of the possession– Leonard is just that damn good at killing big men in isolation.

In the past two series, Philadelphia and Milwaukee found success by putting smaller players on Gasol and daring him to punish them in the post on the perceived mismatch. He could not deliver. The Warriors somewhat copied that approach by willingly switching their smaller guards onto Gasol in non-Leonard actions, yet this time Gasol made sure that they would not get away with that level of disrespect. First let’s eat the soul of Splash Brother #1…

and now Splash Brother #2…

Again, Gasol’s aggressiveness causes rotations that put Golden State out of their comfort zone. He moonwalks Klay Thompson back to the rim with little resistance which forces Green to help over again. At that point the Warriors defence was in shambles and Toronto’s ball movement expertly exploits the scramble that Gasol effectively forces. The Warriors continued to switch Thompson onto Gasol in the post, but eventually had to start sending double teams which made matters even worse.

The Raptors patience on offence was something to behold; they held the ball for an insanely long 16.4 seconds per possession and waited until the cracks emerged. And boy did they ever.

Playmaking out of the trap

Aforementioned, the Warriors were incredibly aggressive getting the ball out of Leonard’s hands with a series of traps. The Raptors replied by using Gasol as the short roller out of these situations, gifting him time and space to make a play with a numerical advantage. These moments sent the outnumbered Warriors defence reeling.

VanVleet relocates on this play undetected. Green doesn’t even move to him until the ball is in his hands! This is partially due to the Warriors playing on their heels defensively for much of the night, but it is also because of the aggression Gasol showed earlier in the game to attack the rim. Green’s eyes are fixated on Gasol as soon as he receives the ball, especially given that Thompson is the sole rim protector. The response? An immediate pass for a wide-open look.

Gasol also made a clean mid-range shot off of a Leonard trap in crunch-time which sealed the Raptors first ever NBA Final victory. So much has been made of Leonard’s historic run, but Game 1 was a team win in every sense of the word. Toronto dissected the defending champions and Gasol has fulfilled his role as the connective force on both sides of the floor that has allowed the Raptors to blossom into a very, very, real championship contender.

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