Raptors’ Marc Gasol revitalized and ready to chase back-to-back titles

Marc Gasol practicing during the Toronto Raptors' training camp in Orlando, Fla. (Toronto Raptors/Twitter)

By most standards, from most vantage points, the Toronto Raptors were in the midst of a successful season — delightfully so, given expectations.

But Marc Gasol’s standards are higher than most, his expectations for himself unforgiving and unrelenting.

So while the Raptors were rolling along at 46-18 before the season paused, mounting an impressive championship defence even in the absence of starters Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, Gasol was stewing.

Twice his season had been interrupted by a balky hamstring, a condition that limited him to 36 out of a possible 64 games and saw him on the shelf for 15 games and counting when the season was put on hiatus on March 11th due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“It was a frustrating season for me personally because I could never get a rhythm and help the team the way that I should be helping the team,” he said on a conference call from Walt Disney Resort near Orlando, where the Raptors and 21 other teams are have sequestered themselves to finish the 2019-20 regular season and playoffs. “As soon as, I can’t remember which day it was that we got informed the facility was closing down, I got together with my team on a phone call and got going on a plan to resolve these ongoing issues.”

The source wasn’t all that complicated. Between the regular season, the Raptors run to the NBA championship and leading Spain to gold at the World Cup in China last September, Gasol played a career-high 115 games, competing at the highest level of basketball for 11 months without interruption.

“You go from a late [playoff] run in June, a great late run in June, and putting everything on the line for the team. In mid-July, we started with the national team and try to complete something special with them, too, which we obviously did. Those are two very taxing efforts, right?” said Gasol. “At the end of the day, you have to put in the time, you have to put in the work if you’re going to use that much energy.

“If you only take money out of the bank and never put money in the bank, you’re gonna go broke.”

To extend the analogy, Gasol was determined to use the nearly four-month break from competition – almost unprecedented for him given he’s been in the playoffs seven times in the past nine NBA seasons and has played internationally in the summers 11 of his 14 years as a professional – to pay off his credit cards and build up his savings again.

Based on the head-turning physical transformation he was able to accomplish while in Spain and largely under lockdown, Gasol could be ready to splash some money around when competition heats up — beginning with the Raptors’ first of eight seeding games, on Aug. 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers.

‘Skinny Marc Gasol’ became a social media talking point the minute photographs of a leaner, more muscular version of the 35-year-old seven footer began circulating online in late May and early June.

Once he joined his teammates in Florida and they could see the transformation was not due to some clever filter usage, the reactions were even more evocative.

“I was shocked seeing him,” Raptors wing Patrick McCaw said Wednesday. “It was like, ‘Sheesh,’ …I think he thinks he’s my age again now but he looks great, moving well, moving fast, handling the ball, just the change that he made is super … it’s good and I’m excited to see him play”

Gasol’s no stranger to physical transformations. The most significant he ever made came when he shed, by his estimate, 100 pounds from the end of his days as a Big Mac-bingeing high school star in 2002 and 2003 in Memphis — where lived while his older brother, Pau, starred for the Grizzlies — to when he earned Spanish League MVP honours in 2008 prior to coming to the NBA for the 2008-09 season.

In the NBA, he’s generally been listed at 255 pounds and his commitment to managing his weight and fitness was described as “fanatical” by Spanish national team head coach and Raptors assistant Sergio Scariolo when Toronto acquired Gasol at the trade deadline in 2019.

But what’s often missing in a busy NBA life that other elite athletes point to as essential in making the small gains and adjustments that matter at the highest levels is time, routine and consistency.

With a schedule suddenly devoid of flights, late nights and intense competition almost every other day, Gasol went to work.

“I just thought about maximizing the situation,” he said. Not only for professional reasons, but for personal reasons, too: spending time with your family, understanding what’s important and what’s not, kind of reflecting a bit on everything. I think we all had the time to do that a little bit.”

The two-time All-Star didn’t roll out his diet plans for anyone to follow during his conference call on Wednesday, but his big-picture explanation for achieving the professional athlete triple crown — better fitness, more muscle mass and less body fat — made perfect sense:

“Consistency goes with everything. It goes with training regimen, goals, sleeping habits, everything. Obviously when you’re at home, everything is a lot easier than when you’re on the road and travelling and trying to make everything work and winning games, which at the end of the day, that’s what you’re judged for.”

How this translates when the ball goes up is the next picture everyone wants to see.

As a Raptor, Gasol has settled into a place that has been a bit curious, given his role over most of his 10-plus years with the Grizzlies. His contributions are significant, but statistically less obvious. The Raptors’ surge in three-point shooting after the trade deadline last year — they led the NBA in accuracy in that most crucial statistical category — was largely attributed to the veteran’s rapid-fire ball movement and screening ability, as an example.

This season – even though he’s only played 36 games – Gasol has similarly made himself felt.

Of the Raptors’ six lineups that have played together for 100 minutes or more, per Basketball Reference, the three Gasol is featured in rank first, second and third in net rating — outscoring the opposition by 14.8 points per 100 positions, 13.2 per 100 and 11.7 per 100, respectively.

For context, the Milwaukee Bucks have been running roughshod over the rest of the NBA and their net rating is a league-best 10.7.

Interestingly Gasol’s been able to unlock elite play without putting up numbers that look anything like the scoring load he carried with the Grizzlies. As a Raptor he’s averaged just 8.4 points a game on 44 per cent shooting, a significant dip from 18.4 points a game he contributed over last two full seasons in Memphis.

Livestream the Raptors' quest to defend their NBA title with select NBA playoff games on Sportsnet NOW.

The Raptors have different needs: last season the offence was dominated by Leonard and this year Pascal Siakam’s usage has increased, while a long list of other Raptors have upped their production also.

But it’s hard to look at Gasol’s sharpened physique and good health and wonder if it could mean he’s preparing to chip in more offensively as the Raptors make their title defence.

It’s another topic that Gasol bats away, typically. He convincingly argues that his goals are only team goals, but Nurse has mused about getting more punch from Gasol routinely and his teammates seem to welcome the possibilities, too:

“It’s going to be huge,” says McCaw. “I think for him he’s just taking care of his body, maintaining, doing the things he needs to do to stay in shape and the changes he’s made is drastic.

“Not saying that he’s old but the age that he is and how he still wants to continue to get better and make improvements is huge. It’s going to be huge for us, he’s healthy, he’s in great shape, he looks amazing. It just adds another dynamic to our team.”

Gasol looks fantastic, by all accounts, but he’d be the first to tell you winning in the NBA is about substance and sacrifice, rather than ego and a well-curated Instagram account.

So yes, he’s lost weight. No he doesn’t know how much.

“Not really sure. I don’t think that’s really relevant,” he said. “What’s important [is] we’ll all be measured by winning games and getting another ring. That’s what we’re all for. We’re all trying to be in the best situation personally to do that.”

So new-look Gasol? Sure.

But otherwise?

Same guy.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

Quick Dribbles

    McCaw chooses statement for back of his jersey:

In order to keep the Black Lives Matter movement top of mind as basketball returns to action, the NBA has approved a list of relevant phrases players can have on the back of their jerseys instead of their last name.

“Out of the options they gave us, I chose ‘Say Their Names’ just for the people that have been affected by social injustice and racism,” said McCaw. “So many names from [the previous] year on to now and now’s just at the most pivotal time in history [to make] a change …It’s huge just to understand the people that have been affected and still are being affected by social injustice and systematic racism, things like that …I’m excited just to be able to play on national T.V. and show my support and where I stand.”

    The view from Spain:

Gasol has long been active in social causes. He observed the Black Lives Matter protest that gained momentum after the murder by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis from Spain and understood the parallels and the reach.

“I don’t think people in Europe have to look only to the U.S. [for examples of racism]. I think we can see how we treat a lot of immigrants that come from Africa to Europe, the way we deal with it. Not ‘we’ but a lot of people do, sadly, in Spain or Italy or other countries around Europe,” Gasol said. “You know, we look at them as immigrants, not only as human beings. So that tag that you put on [them] already tells you a lot of stuff about the way you view them.

“So, I think, all those things needs to change and if it doesn’t come from the top and from the government, it has to come from the people. So hopefully we can [react] positively and respectfully to those changes and provoke that change.”

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