Marc Gasol key to Raptors defensive success against Vucevic, Magic

Kyle Lowry, Coach Nurse and Fred VanVleet discuss what challenges they face in first round opponent, Orlando Magic, and why they got to watch out for old teammate Terrence Ross.

TORONTO — The Memphis Grizzlies, the team that Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol spent the first 10-and-a-half seasons of his NBA career playing for, preach a defensive philosophy they call “stops on demand.”

Basically, whenever a game would enter its most crucial moments, and the opposition would funnel its offence through its most effective, overwhelming players, Gasol and his four teammates would endeavour to heighten their defensive intensity as much as possible. It’s a mindset thing as much as a physical one. Everyone would lock in, compete at an absolute maximum effort level, finish the possession to its bitter end, and get a stop on demand.

“You can see it here, that same mindset,” Gasol said Friday, after the Raptors ran through a final practice ahead of their first-round playoff series with the Orlando Magic. “You have guys that can make plays defensively. You have guys that can cover and scheme. A lot of guys that can switch onto anybody. You have a lot of tools. That’s a good thing.”

But of all the defensive tools the Raptors will bring into this series, Gasol may be the most crucial. Everyone knows Orlando’s defence is solid, and that the Raptors will have to throw a variety of different looks at them in order to be successful. But the flip side of that is how the Raptors plan to stop Orlando’s solid, if unspectacular, attack. And that could, in many ways, revolve around Gasol’s ability to contain Nikola Vucevic.

The 28-year-old took a leap offensively this season, evolving into a complete, modern NBA centre at a perfect time as he enters free agency this off-season. He’ll undoubtedly be a problem for the Raptors in this series. He’ll control the glass, he’ll shoot and make threes, and he’ll find his way to a handful of assists per night.

Vucevic’s best game of the season actually came against the Raptors a few days after Christmas, when he went off for 30 points, 19 rebounds and eight assists, finishing plus-33 in a 29-point blowout. And he was a focal point of Orlando’s next double-digit victory over the Raptors two months later, when he put up 23 and 12 in 30 minutes, which was actually a below-average workload for him this season.

Asked for his impressions of Vucevic’s game, Gasol rattled off a brief dissertation touching on essentially every element contained within the sport of basketball. He’s lethal at the basket, Gasol said. And he’s got shots from mid-range and distance, too. He rebounds, he drives with both hands, he sets strong screens, he plays unselfishly.

“He has a very complete package,” Gasol summarized. “There’s a lot of things he can do.”

And it will be up to Gasol to limit those things, or at least partially contain them. Serge Ibaka will also factor in, of course, and the Raptors will hope to get a better defensive effort out of him than he provided during Vucevic’s massive performance in December, a game in which Toronto was without then-starting centre Jonas Valanciunas.

But it’ll likely be Gasol on the court late in games when the defensive possessions are most critical, and the Magic are running a great deal of offence through their all-star centre. Likewise, it will be up to Gasol to navigate how best to attack Vucevic and Co. at the other end, where Orlando’s defensive length was an issue for the Raptors during the regular season, and severely disrupted Toronto’s offence.

“They have a lot of length, they do a great job of taking away the paint,” Gasol said. “Very long, athletic. They disrupt a lot of things in the paint. So we have to be ready to attack once, twice, maybe three times, and get ready to take the open shot.”

The Magic also rebounded well all season, particularly at their own basket. And they’re a legitimate threat at the offensive end as well, on the occasions they choose to crash the glass. Orlando led the NBA by converting of 62.8 per cent of their rebound chances defensively, and 43.6 per cent offensively. That second number may have ranked lower if Orlando had attempted offensive rebounds more often. But, if anything, it indicates how efficient and opportunistic the Magic can be when they choose to be aggressive.

Vucevic is the centrepiece of that, but Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac will find crafty ways to get involved on the boards, as well, while using their athleticism to get back quickly in transition. And depth players like Khem Birch and Michael Carter-Williams will bring a useful rebounding presence off the bench.

The Raptors, meanwhile, were a middle-of-the-pack rebounding team during the regular season, and actually downgraded in February by shipping out Valanciunas in the Gasol trade. Of course, that was the bargain required to add a player as versatile and useful as Gasol.

And Gasol’s impact has been considerable. The Raptors have the NBA’s fourth-best net rating (7.0) since Gasol was acquired, which is nearly two points higher than the 5.2 net rating the team played to prior. And while it’s only a 14-game sample, the starting lineup the Raptors settled on towards the end of the season — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Gasol — played to a 12.2 net rating, scoring 119.5 points per 100 possessions with an incredible 71 per cent assist rate. It’s the best starting lineup the Raptors have ever taken into a postseason.

What the Raptors will need more of from Gasol in this series is a willingness to shoot his shot from beyond the arc. Upon joining the Raptors in February, Gasol’s three-point attempts were cut in half from the four per game he was averaging with Memphis. He took fewer than two attempts from distance only three times over 53 games with Memphis this season; it happened a dozen times over 26 games with Toronto.

Part of that is Toronto’s offence operating differently than the Memphis’s, of course. Gasol is less of a focal point with the Raptors, a team with far more scoring options than the Grizzlies. But another part of it is Gasol’s proclivity for unselfishness. He’s one of the NBA’s craftiest playmaking big men, and perpetually looks to make a pass to an open teammate before considering an attempt of his own.

That’s great — not many teams have centres putting up assist rates over 20 per cent. And the Raptors will want Gasol to continue to create. But they’ll also want him to provide a consistent threat from beyond the arc in order to pull some of Orlando’s length away from the basket.

“You have to take what’s there,” Gasol said. “Depending on what you do, if you’re popping or rolling, depending on how they play those actions, you have to be ready if you’re the guy that’s open — take that shot. And if not, attack the defence and create a shot for someone else.

“Obviously, in the playoffs, it’s going to be a little different. There’s going to be adjustments made from first quarter to second quarter, from Game 1 to Game 2. So, you just have to be ready and take what’s there.”

It’s no small task for Gasol, who is the biggest element the Raptors have now that they didn’t possess earlier this season when the Magic had their number. Just be a surgical offensive threat, creating for your teammates while taking a wealth of your own opportunities, and stop the opposition’s best player. Simple stuff.

But if anyone’s aware of the psyche required to be successful at this time of year, it’s Gasol, who’s been to a conference final as part of his 59 playoff games played with the Grizzlies. That’s where he learned “stops on demand.” And that’s the mentality he’ll try to bring his new team, starting Saturday.

“Concentration, discipline, staying locked in,” Gasol said. “You just battle. Go out there and play with the mindset of being aggressive on both ends of the floor. And let the best team win.”

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