TORONTO – Kawhi Leonard is the best player on the Toronto Raptors, the best player in their second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers and is making a case as the best player on the planet at the moment.
“Playoff Kawhi” is the basketball equivalent of an astronaut – not many have walked in his shoes.
It’s a sight to behold.
But the 76ers were supposed to be a formidable obstacle for the Raptors because, in theory, they have the series’ second-best player in Joel Embiid.
The massive Cameroonian is already on a Hall of Fame trajectory – no other player in league history has started their career averaging at least 24 points, 11 rebounds and three assists through their first 158 NBA games, per Basketball-Reference.
But what if the Raptors have the best big man in the series? What if Marc Gasol is better than Embiid?
Embiid might have the windmill hops and the lightning-quick spin moves, but Gasol has more than held his own with his Spanish dad bod and leaping ability that might take him over a laptop – a closed one – on a good day.
Embiid is averaging 17 points and 7.6 rebounds on 38.3 per cent shooting for the series. Take away his Game 3 explosion when he went off for 33 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, as well as a number of out-sized celebrations, and the Sixers big man has been even more limp, averaging just 13 and seven on an anemic 27 per cent shooting.
Any way you cut it, that’s a massive win for the Raptors given Embiid is coming off an all-NBA season during which he put up 27.5 points and 13.5 rebounds.
Kyle Lowry is as discerning a basketball critic as you can find and he gives Gasol the enthusiastic thumbs up.
"Chuck Hayes [Lowry’s former teammate with the Houston Rockets and another brainy defender] and Marc Gasol have some of the best hands I’ve ever seen defensively as bigs," Lowry said earlier in the series. "Marc, when he’s up, he’s gonna get his hand on the ball, he’s smart, he’s gonna know his positions, he’s gonna know the rotations, he’s gonna get to the right spots. And he’s a big, strong body. Marc is seven feet. Big man. He’s able to do his job at a high level."
It helps that offensively Gasol is finding a better balance between playing for others in the Raptors attack and being a threat himself. If Gasol can hover around the 13.5 points/five rebounds/three assists on 58 per cent shooting (42 per cent from three) he’s put up over the past two games for the rest of the playoffs, the Raptors would likely happily sign off on that.
The primary caveat is the obvious one: Embiid has been under the weather for three of the five games so far in the series – just ask him. An energized Embiid in Game 6 in Philadelphia on Thursday night could go a long way towards the Sixers forcing a Game 7 on Sunday back in Toronto.
Even wheezing and sneezing and dealing with a tummy bug, one might have thought Embiid’s incredibly rare combination of size, power and skill would have shone through more often.
But no. Take Game 3 off the books and Embiid has looked ordinary, a magic trick Gasol has performed against Embiid over and over again. In matchups with Embiid while Gasol was playing for the Memphis Grizzlies, Embiid shot just 33 per cent over four starts the past two seasons.
Gasol might have a new address, but nothing has changed.
Through five games, Gasol has been the primary defender on Embiid for an average of 40.2 possessions per game and has rendered the fringe MVP candidate a shadow of himself. With Gasol guarding him, Embiid is shooting just 34.3 per cent from the floor, converting just 12-of-35 field goal attempts, per NBA.com. Minus Embiid’s big outing in Game 3, it’s even an even more grim 7-of-23.
NBA.com features a measure called “deterrence factor,” where 100 is average, higher is less deterrence and lower indicates the defender is offering more deterrence. Gasol’s deterrence factor against Embiid is 66.4.
It’s the second straight series Gasol has helped erase an all-star big man. Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic is likely still having nightmares of Gasol belly-bumping him off his preferred spots and having to either throw up a shot he’s uncomfortable with or get off the ball altogether.
"Just like any great player, you try to make everything as uncomfortable as possible, be as physical as they allow you," was all Gasol would give away before the series began. "Same kind of mindset that we had with Nic."
Gasol refuses to give up deep-post position to Embiid, wrestles with him for every potential offensive rebound and uses his length and quick hands to harass Embiid when he faces up.
"You gotta give credit to Marc Gasol. He was the Defensive Player of the Year [2012-13] for a reason," 76ers head Brett Brown said of Toronto’s defence in Game 1. "I gotta help (Embiid) more. I think getting him into the post different ways, and freeing him up a little bit more than we did is something that I have to look at."
The problem is whatever the Sixers look at doing, Gasol has seen before. And it’s likely going to continue to be more difficult for Embiid given the Raptors seem committed to pairing Gasol with fellow big Serge Ibaka in a defensive lineup that has choked the 76ers in Games 4 and 5, holding them to 86.7 points per 100 possessions in 37 minutes together. For reference, the best two-man defensive rating during the regular season this year was 87.1.
"They’re being good together," said Lowry. "They’re out on the floor talking Spanish [Ibaka and Gasol have played on the Spanish national team together]. We don’t understand what they’re saying, but whatever they’re doing, they got to keep it up. But just being big and being athletic and being strong, we need that."
The Sixers need Embiid to be more than he has been. He says he’s determined to provide just that on Thursday night in Game 6.
"I know I’ve got to do a better job for us to win," Embiid said. " … that’s on me. I can’t control my physical condition, but I can control how much I push myself and I try to do that. But I’ve just got to do more. I know that.
"I’ve got to go back to Game 3, the same energy, got to have fun. That’s one of the keys of me playing so well the whole season, this post-season. I’ve got to smile on the court. I’ve got to lift my teammates up. I shouldn’t care about offending anybody, I’ve just got to be myself."
And the Raptors will have Gasol there, waiting, like always, being himself. And so far it’s been advantage Gasol and advantage Raptors.