Raptors expect Gasol to bring vital veteran know-how on both ends of court

NBA analyst Michael Grange joins Nikki Reyes to get us set for Marc Gasol's much-needed return to the Raptors lineup, and why he brings an overall intelligence level to the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

TORONTO — Marc Gasol will turn 35 in two weeks and, in the process, become one of only 10 players over 34 to suit up in the NBA this season. He’ll be turning 35 before Darren Collison, Roy Hibbert, Kris Humphries, Shaun Livingston, and Luol Deng, who are all retired. It will put Gasol closer in age to his team’s lead assistant coach, Adrian Griffin, than most of the Toronto Raptors he shares the floor with.

“He’s fun to coach. I mean, we learn as much from him as hopefully he learns from us,” Griffin said Tuesday as the Raptors practiced ahead of Wednesday night’s clash with the Oklahoma City Thunder. “He knows the game like the back of his hand. His game is predicated on involving others — he’s not going out there looking to score 30 points. He’s out there to facilitate, run the offence, take the shot when it presents itself. He’s a tremendous team player.”

That the Raptors have gone 6-6 with worse offensive and defensive ratings since Gasol was lost to a left hamstring strain in mid-December speaks not only to what Griffin is describing, but how effective the Spanish big man has remained even as one of the oldest players in the league.

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Of course, the bevy of additional injuries the Raptors have suffered over the last dozen games throw plenty of commotion into that simple statistical example. Not to mention quality of opposition, hot and cold shooting nights, and ever-evolving styles of play. So, maybe we can just take Pascal Siakam’s word for it.

“Obviously, we need Marc back out there,” Siakam said. “It’ll make it easier for us. We can sometimes get easy buckets without even working for it. He can just be out there on the top operating, and we can just cut and play off of him. It’s a luxury to have, for sure.”

Barring the unforeseen, the Raptors will reintroduce that luxury Wednesday in Oklahoma City, as Gasol has cleared the final hurdle in his rehabilitation after suffering the non-contact injury on December 18. His minutes will likely be somewhat limited in the early going, as the Raptors give him some runway to regain his sea legs amidst the controlled chaos of an NBA floor. Which is where another Raptors luxury, fellow centre Serge Ibaka who’s averaging 16.2 points and 10 rebounds over his last 18 games, comes into play.

“Serge has been playing unbelievable the whole time with all the injuries — he’s been great,” Siakam said. “Having those two guys coming in and out is a nightmare for the other team.”

Gasol says he brought in additional support staff — “People from Spain; Spanish people,” he said when asked to elaborate — to help him rehabilitate “around the clock” and get over the injury quicker. His days involved multiple on-court workouts, strengthening sessions, and plenty of time on a trainer’s table. He doesn’t care to remember the particulars.

“It’s not a lot of fun because you don’t get to put the ball through the basket a lot. You don’t get to compete as you want to,” he said. “It wasn’t pleasant.”

The hardest part was feeling like himself again after about a week, but knowing he wasn’t close to where he needed to be. With an injury like Gasol’s, the day-to-day discomfort alleviates fairly quickly. But the weakness in the muscle still exists, waiting to be re-aggravated as soon as you extend yourself just a little too far.

“It’s a little frustrating because it feels good most of the time,” Gasol said. “You start jogging, it doesn’t feel bad — your body’s like, ‘OK, I’m ready to play.’ And, obviously, you’re not because as soon as you take a long stride, you can re-injure it. Hamstrings can be a little tricky.”

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The rest of the body can be, too. Gasol again wouldn’t elaborate, but admitted he’d been carrying other ailments for some time that he hadn’t been able to properly address.

“There’s other stuff that you have active, that you try to calm down,” he said. “Just wear and tear — the normal body stuff after you go through an NBA season and you don’t have as much rest. And not just rest, but time to work on stuff you need to work on. It’s maintenance more than anything. You don’t have as much time because you’re competing and you’re trying to win and you’re getting ready for games. Sometimes, you don’t have as much time to work on the things that you need to work on.”

Story checks out. Beginning last October, Gasol played more than 110 ultra-competitive basketball games over an 11-month span with the Memphis Grizzlies, Raptors, and Spain’s national team. His reward for all that hard work was not only an NBA championship but also a World Cup title — a pair of career milestones the well-respected Gasol deserved to win. And a pair of milestones his teams wouldn’t have won without Gasol’s unimpeachable contributions.

His acquisition at last season’s trade deadline raised an already strong Raptors defence to a championship level, which was no more evident than in how he evaporated the production of Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic in the first round of the playoffs, and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid in the second. Gasol’s passing and three-point marksmanship in turn opened up the floor for the Raptors at the other end, creating space for dynamic attackers like Kawhi Leonard and Siakam to be at their best.

Then he flew off to the other side of the world and was named the all-tournament centre at the World Cup as Spain ran the table on the way to only its second gold — or medal of any kind — in the nation’s dozen World Cup appearances. Almost immediately after that, he rejoined the Raptors for training camp.

It’s a lot of high-leverage, high-usage basketball. So, in light of that, it’s probably not shocking that an injury occurred, and not the worst thing in the world that one of the league’s oldest players got a few weeks to catch his breath. The many NBA athletes whose teams didn’t qualify for the postseason, and who didn’t represent their countries during the summer, were out of competition for around five months. Thanks only to the hamstring injury, Gasol got four weeks.

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“That’s just part of it — it’s just part of the game. The day only has so many hours. And you have to work on a thousand things. So, sometimes you have to pick and choose,” Gasol said. “But I’d much rather be playing than anything else. And now I get to play and help the guys win games, which is, at the end of the day, what really matters.”

There is no disputing Gasol’s impact in that regard. The Raptors have allowed only 99.2 points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the court this season, second among Raptors regulars only to Terence Davis. With Gasol off the floor, that number balloons to 105.7, the highest off-court defensive rating of anyone on the roster.

Gasol’s on- and off-court offensive ratings (110 on; 106.7 off) also paint the picture of a player who helps his team generate points, even though Gasol hasn’t enjoyed a stellar year scoring-wise. While he’s averaging only 6.6 points per game — well off his 14.7-point career mark — Gasol’s still made his usual impact as a playmaker, which is why Toronto’s assist rate, effective field goal rate, and true shooting percentage are well above the team’s season-long averages when he’s on the floor.

He makes the players around him better, basically. And often to his own detriment. The eternal knock against Gasol is that he’s unselfish to a fault — passing up good opportunities to score in order to let a marginally more open teammate get a bucket. The Raptors have been pulling teeth with Gasol practically since the day he arrived in order to get him to shoot more often rather than looking to turn his own 80 per cent look into an 85 per cent look for someone else.

And they’ll probably be fighting that fight as long as Gasol’s in uniform. Still, the Raptors do need him to be a willing shooter in order to draw opposition big men out of the paint and open up lanes for his teammates to cut into. That’s the space Gasol can use his exceptional passing from the elbows to exploit.

It’s a balance — one the soon-to-be-35-year-old is constantly working to strike. What’s undeniable is the Raptors are much better off having Gasol play that out on the floor with a bunch of 20-something’s rather than sitting on the bench next to the coaching staff he’s closer to in age. Whether his teammates like taking his veteran grief or not.

“He’s always joking around with me and telling me how he gives me all my buckets and stuff,” Siakam said. “Obviously, we all want Marc to shoot when he’s open. He’s a great shooter. But that’s just how he is. He’s a pass-first guy. We’re just going to argue on the side about shooting and stuff. And he’s going to tell me I’m going to take all the shots and stuff. That’s just Marc.”

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