Raptors’ Gasol flashes signs of old self in win over Magic

Orlando Magic centre Nikola Vucevic (9) protects the ball from Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol (33) during first half NBA basketball playoff action in Toronto, on Saturday, April 13, 2019. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — Walking off the purple-splashed hardwood on throwback night at Scotiabank Arena, Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol traced the sign of the cross over his torso, clasped his hands together as if he was praying, and looked up to the heavens.

It was the second quarter Monday and Gasol had just been flagged for his third foul in less than 12 minutes of floor time while battling in the paint with his Orlando Magic counterpart, Nikola Vucevic. And after he’d spent some time questioning the merit of his penalty, Gasol received an additional one in the form of a technical foul, his second in Toronto’s first four games. That doubles Gasol’s total from the entirety of last season.

“Yeah, he thought he got hooked and got called for the foul. You know, he’s Marc Gasol. He doesn’t complain very often,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said afterward. “It’s kind of surprising, to be honest.”

It is, but it’s just been that kind of start for Gasol, who didn’t look much like himself through Toronto’s first three games, shooting a combined 3-of-19 from the field while not making his usual impact in terms of defence or playmaking. He was better in Toronto’s win over the Chicago Bulls Saturday night, finishing plus-26 while hitting the one three-pointer he took and pulling down 10 boards. But all the Raptors looked good in that one, as they throttled the Bulls by a 24-point margin.

Still, it was early. And still, it’s early. But Monday’s game was an encouraging sign from the crafty centre, as Gasol had his best night of the season in Toronto’s 104-95 victory over the Magic.

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Much like they once did with his predecessor, the imposing yet defensively limited Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors fed Gasol early, perhaps in an effort to get him going. On Toronto’s fourth possession, Kyle Lowry ran a two-man action with Gasol that led him into a turnaround fadeaway he drilled over Vucevic. And the next time up the floor, Lowry drove into the paint and kicked it out to Gasol at the top of the arc, where he drilled his first of two three-pointers on the night.

It ended up a 10-point, 10-rebound, team-high plus-16 evening for the 34-year-old, one that had to be reassuring for those who were wondering if Gasol’s early-season hiccups were merely the result of a truncated summer and an 11-year veteran finding his sea legs, or the sign of a once-great player in the throes of decline.

It could be partly the latter. All players Gasol’s age are declining. But we must also appreciate that Gasol hasn’t had an extended break from basketball in more than a year, and that some early season fatigue from all those miles run should be expected.

Remember, Gasol logged 79 regular-season games with the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto last year and 24 more in the playoffs helping the Raptors win their first title. Shortly after that, he joined Spain and helped his home country win the FIBA World Cup, becoming only the second player to win an NBA title and a World Cup in the same year. Almost immediately after that he rejoined the Raptors for this season’s training camp, one in which his workload was carefully managed due to the wear and tear he’d accumulated playing 111 high-level games over the prior 11 months.

That’s a lot of run for one of the league’s oldest players. So far this season, 368 athletes have touched an NBA floor. Gasol, who turns 35 in January, is one of only 17 born in 1985 or earlier. This past off-season, Darren Collison, Shaun Livingston, and Luol Deng retired. They were all born after Gasol.

That says one thing about how young the league is trending, as more than half its athletes are 25 or younger. And it says another about how good Gasol is. He just made significant contributions to a pair of championship runs (the Raptors don’t win a title without him and he was named to the World Cup all-star team) while logging an extremely heavy workload at the game’s most physical position. That takes exceptional ingenuity, durability, and skill.

And all three of those traits were on display Monday night as Gasol battled with Vucevic, who’s the kind of modern NBA centre — dynamic and capable of scoring from distance — that seems designed to exploit the lumbering Gasol’s limitations. Vucevic does it to plenty of centres across the league, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds a night since the 2014-15 season. But not to Gasol.

Monday, Gasol held Vucevic to 1-of-13 shooting, bottling him up at the rim, keeping him off the offensive glass, and even getting out to contest a handful of non-paint twos the Magic centre attempted. Gasol was so effective against Vucevic that Orlando head coach Steve Clifford benched his star for the entirety of the fourth quarter, trying to counter with smaller lineups.

“Credit? I mean, I’m going to give it to Marc. He’s the one guarding him for the majority of the time,” said Fred VanVleet, when asked how the Raptors contained Orlando’s primary threat. “But it was a team effort. We try to fly out and make it tough on (Vucevic). And he just had a tough night.”

And Vucevic will know that feeling well. Only half a year ago, in the first round of the playoffs, Gasol gave him a five-game education on the finer points of veteran centre play. Gasol didn’t let Vucevic breathe near the rim, limiting him to 36 per cent shooting — 23 per cent from distance — in the series, with an average of only 11 points and six rebounds per game. He’d shot 43 per cent during the regular season, averaging 19 and 10. But then he ran into Gasol.

Meanwhile, on the offensive end Monday night, Gasol did his part to take some of the playmaking burden off Lowry and VanVleet, who have each carried massive workloads through the first four games of the season. For a big man, Gasol’s an uncommonly adroit playmaker, throwing dimes to cutting teammates from the elbows, often directing traffic with nothing more than eye contact and head nods.

“It helps. Because you’ve got a good team, good passers. And you can basically give Marc the ball at the top and he can kind of orchestrate from there,” Lowry said. “It makes it a little bit easier, not having to bump and grind all the time.”

That’s exactly what the Raptors need from Gasol. It’s a little unrealistic to expect him to score 20 a night like he did in his all-star 2016-17 season with the Grizzlies. But if he can help facilitate the offence, play solid defence in the paint, and contribute a low double-digit point total? That’s going to help the Raptors win like they did Monday. That should be the expectation.

He certainly looked much more like himself, particularly after appealing to whatever he saw following that technical foul. When he returned to the floor for the beginning of the second half, Gasol quickly hit a sweeping hook over Vucevic and, about 90 seconds later, found the ball in his hands at the elbow as the shot clock was expiring.

Without time to think, he threw up a quick-release three that rainbowed high above that purple-splashed hardwood and dropped perfectly through the rim as the buzzer sounded and Gasol fell backwards into the first row of fans. Popcorn flew. The Raptors were up by 12. And Gasol looked like himself again.


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