Raptors need more aggressiveness, scoring from Marc Gasol

Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol (33) defends as Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) drives to the net during first half, second round NBA basketball playoff action in Toronto, on Monday, April 29, 2019. (Frank Gunn/CP)

PHILADELPHIA — Marc Gasol’s basketball-reference page is a beautiful thing. Year after year of steady, underappreciated production. Anywhere from 14 to 19 points a night. Seven or eight rebounds to go with it. Four or five assists as a centre. A reliable three-point shot that emerged over the latter half of his career. From the time he broke into the league as a 24-year-old in 2008 right up until this, his age-34 season, Gasol’s been an extremely valuable NBA commodity.

Someone needs to show him that basketball-reference page. Someone needs to remind him that he’s Marc Gasol — he can be an offensive weapon. That he’s in Toronto not to be only a facilitator for the Raptors’ scoring threats, but to be a threat himself.

Seven games into his first playoff run with the Raptors, Gasol’s inclined strongly towards selflessness. He’s played a supporting role in the offence — moving the ball, spacing the floor for his teammates, doing everything he can to facilitate everyone else’s statistical success before his own. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse doesn’t want Gasol to stop doing those things. But he does want him to start looking to take care himself more.

“I always think that really good teams, offensively anyway, usually need a lead guy. And then obviously a second guy. But the third guy is also important too — that there’s a third guy you can go to and score,” Nurse said Thursday before his team’s shootaround ahead of Game 3 of its second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. “Now, we’ve got Kawhi, Pascal, and Kyle can be that guy. But I think Marc needs to inch his way into that discussion. He’s just too talented of a scorer to not put up a few more points.”

That’s not to overlook how valuable Gasol’s been to the Raptors in these playoffs so far. Through seven games, he’s posted a 25.3 net rating, produced from a great 120.5 offensive rating, and an even better 95.3 defensive rating. And the Raptors have been at their best when he’s been on the floor. With Gasol on the court, Toronto has been plus-25.3. With him off, they’re minus-5.3.

But he’s averaging only 7.9 points per game, well off the 17-to-20-point range he’s averaged over past playoff runs with the Memphis Grizzlies. He’s making fewer than half the field goal attempts he did with those Grizzlies teams. And after generally getting to the free throw line anywhere from four to five times per game on average in those past seasons, he’s attempted only eight free throws total over Toronto’s first seven playoff games this spring.

Of course, Gasol’s role with the Raptors is different and less focal than the one he played with Memphis. That’s why his 22.3 per cent usage rate with the Grizzlies this season dropped to 16.3 per cent in his time with Toronto after the trade deadline. The Raptors have Leonard, Siakam, Lowry, even Danny Green — plenty of other offensive-minded pieces who will soak up their share of possessions.

But Gasol’s 11.6 per cent usage in these playoffs is way too low, particularly considering what he’s proven himself to be capable of throughout his career. The Raptors need him to be more aggressive, both in the post and when he has an opportunity to shoot. If Philadelphia is going to continue using Joel Embiid on Siakam defensively, while asking the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Tobias Harris to guard the 7-foot-1, 255-pound Gasol, the Raptors centre needs to attack that matchup. And after experiencing those looks in Game 2, and the final result they produced, he knows it.

“I think the first quarter and a half, we got a little stagnant with it. I think after that, either by me being more in the low post and making a couple plays or just taking a guy away by being down there — sometimes I’ve got to still be out there because it allows Pascal and Kawhi and the other guys to drive and mix it up,” Gasol said. “And at all times you need to remind yourself that whenever you see a gap opportunity to get to the front of the rim — do it.

“That’s kind of what we’ve talked about — without getting into anybody else’s space, and our tempo, and without those things. Within our team concept, trying to find places to be able to attack them. And it’s a two-way street. We don’t have that habit of finding that positioning. But hopefully tonight we’ll do a better job.”

He just can’t help it. Even in talking about how he needs to be more aggressive and score more often, Gasol starts by talking about how important it is to respect the space of his teammates, and not to disrupt his team’s rhythm. It’d be frustrating if it wasn’t so endearing.

Gasol’s an exceptional basketball mind. He sees the floor as well as anyone, which is how he’s posted assist rates over 18 per cent or higher every season since 2012-13. You simply don’t see that kind of playmaking from the centre position. You don’t even see it from a lot of point guards. Lowry’s one of the best playmaking guards in the league, and even his 29.3 per cent assist rate this season wasn’t that much higher than Gasol’s 22.2.

You get the sense that Gasol sees the floor in numbers, algorithms. When he has an opportunity to score, he’s computing his likelihood of being successful on the fly. If he recognizes an opportunity for a teammate to score instead, one that comes with only marginally better odds than his own, he’s moving the ball to that player. To him, it’s just the right thing to do.

And it’s not bad to be so unselfish. Every head coach wants players like Gasol who prioritize the team’s success over their own. That Gasol values his place in a seamless, coordinated, rhythmic offence over however many points he ends up with in the end is a good thing. That’s the inclination you teach players to have at a young age.

But, in situations like Toronto’s current one, in which the team needs Gasol to prioritize his scoring, it poses a unique challenge. You’d think it wouldn’t be hard to ask a player to shoot more often, to try to be the hero. But that’s not the case.

“It’s usually more difficult, believe it or not,” Nurse said. “It’s harder to get unselfish guys to shoot more than it is to get high volume guys to be less volume, I think.”

But Gasol has to do it. If Embiid’s limiting Siakam’s five-footers at the rim, if Ben Simmons is containing Kawhi Leonard, if Lowry or Green don’t have their shots going, Gasol will need to be a scoring option for the Raptors. He doesn’t have to be their primary threat. He doesn’t even have to be the secondary one. Leonard and Siakam have that locked down. But Gasol might need to step up and be third.

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