Raptors need Marc Gasol to hit his stride with playoffs approaching

Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points, Norman Powell had 20 and the Toronto Raptors beat the Los Angeles Lakers 111-98.

TORONTO — Marc Gasol was reclined at his locker not long after the Toronto Raptors rolled over a disinterested Los Angeles Lakers outfit, 111-98, hands tucked under his armpits as he iced his 34-year-old knees. He was talking about how much he’s enjoying his time in Toronto, where he now plays his basketball after 11 and a half seasons in Memphis. It’s a great situation, he was saying. A great team, great city, great fanbase.

“The only thing I’m missing now is my family,” he said. “The only thing.”

Gasol’s wife, Cristina, is still in Memphis, along with the couple’s two young children. They’re planning to get to Toronto by April, and stay with dad through the playoffs. But the five weeks apart since Gasol was traded to the Raptors in early February have been long. And the two more weeks before they’re reunited will be long, too.

“When you’re traded, normal people like them, they don’t get to just pack up and leave like we do,” Gasol said. “But hopefully by the end of the month they’ll be here. They’re so excited. They love the city. We’re going to make the most out of it. And hopefully win some games.”

Right, that. As insignificant as it is when compared to raising a family, helping the Raptors win is the reason Gasol’s here. They’ve been relatively successful in that regard since his arrival, going 9-4 with a 3.4 net rating that sits ninth in the NBA over that span. But for one reason or another, Gasol has yet to really hit his stride.

He’s certainly had his nights, like the 16-point, six-rebound performance against Brooklyn in his second game with the Raptors, and a 19-point, plus-23 explosion against Portland earlier this month. But there have also been times when he’s looked like what he is — a player who spent a decade doing things one way, and now has to learn new teammates, new systems, and a new role on the fly.

That’s how you end up with games like last Tuesday’s blowout at the hands of the Houston Rockets, when Gasol finished minus-30. Or Monday’s similarly lopsided loss in Cleveland, when Gasol went 1-of-6 from the floor, 0-of-2 from three, and 0-of-1 from the free-throw line, turning the ball over three times. He came into Thursday’s game having made only four of the 14 three-pointers he’d attempted as a Raptor, and none of his last seven.

“It’s an adjustment. I think it’s an adjustment for me, an adjustment for my teammates, for the coaches. You know, you play a certain way and it’s hard to change certain things on the fly,” Gasol said. “But you can’t try to force the issue. You have to organically improve and I’m here to work and do my best with a very positive mindset every day. It’s about what’s best for the team and how we can take another step at both ends of the floor.”

Well, if there is any “best for the team” factor to be found from Serge Ibaka’s Bobby Boucher moment, in which the Raptors centre — incensed following some seemingly innocuous jostling during an inbounds play — tried to cut circulation off to Marquese Chriss’s medulla oblongata, it’s that Gasol will now enjoy a three-game window in which he’ll carry the lion’s share of Toronto’s minutes at the five. Finally, an extended opportunity to find his groove.

It’s needed. And it’s what he’s used to. Gasol spent the past decade as the load-bearing centre on a variety of mildly successful Grizzlies rosters, starting every game he played from early in the 2008-09 season through the day he was traded to Toronto in February. Over the dozen games since, he’s rotated starts with Ibaka, who’s played both forward and centre since joining the Raptors during the 2016-17 season, but is really best suited to play the five.

Adjusting to a bench role has to have had some effect. And the same could be said for the reduction of Gasol’s floor time. After playing 33.5 minutes a night over his Grizzlies career, he’s averaging only 22.8 minutes per game with the Raptors. Not that he wants anyone to notice.

“I don’t want to make a big deal out of it,” Gasol said. “Whatever role you’re given, it’s about having a good mindset. It’s not so much about starting — it’s about finishing games. It’s about the team playing well, and contributing to that. I know now that I’m going to have to start for the next few games, probably. And that contributes to a routine and a habit and a little bit of consistency. That helps you get that out of your mind. But I definitely don’t want to make a big deal out of it.”

So, it doesn’t matter but it kind of does. From the outside looking in, you’d assume that whether or not a player starts a game would have little consequence on their performance. It’s the same game no matter when you’re in it. And not that long ago, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse may have agreed with you. But after watching how things have played out with Gasol, he’s changed his mind.

“I think it’s a challenge for him,” Nurse said before Thursday’s game. “It’s one of the things that I’ve learned a little bit more recently. I think there’s some kind of physical — there’s mental, obviously — but I think it’s more of a physical flow to getting ready. And then, all of a sudden, you sit down for 20 minutes. And you’re not — for 10 years — used to doing that. So, I think we need to study that a little bit. And see if physically we can figure out [how to be] better.”

Of course, Gasol’s contributions aren’t always reflected in his box score. The NBA does not formally tally high-IQ plays. Nor does it track the impact Gasol’s passing, facilitating, and mere presence has on his teammates.

But the league does calculate assist percentage, a category in which Gasol, at 21.9 per cent, is third on the team following point guards Kyle Lowry and Fed VanVleet. Also, charges drawn, a thankless category in which Gasol already sits second on the Raptors after only a dozen games. And screen assists, which sees Gasol trailing only little-used Chris Boucher on a per-48-minutes basis with 5.6.

Still, Gasol’s traditional production is down across the board from his Memphis days, and the Raptors would no doubt like to see him contribute more from a scoring standpoint. For Nurse, that starts with Gasol being a little less unselfish, a little more bullish in the post, and a lot more willing to let loose from distance.

“He’s capable as a scorer,” Nurse said. “He just hasn’t really put a lot of points on the board for us. So, we’re going to look at going through him a little bit, throwing him the ball. I want him to bomb some more threes, maybe five or six a night. Try to get that little part of his game back on track and cut him loose a little bit.”

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Maybe Gasol was listening, because he didn’t hesitate to shoot early in Thursday’s first quarter, drilling an easy jumper when left unguarded just inside the arc before knocking down a three on the Raptors’ next possession. He finished the first half a game-high plus-17, having taken the second-most attempts on his team after Kawhi Leonard.

Gasol stepped into his second three of the night early in the third, and had a tidy 15-point, seven-rebound, four-assist, two-steal line going into the fourth. He wasn’t needed in that final quarter, as the Lakers rolled over, so that’s where his numbers remained. But he still finished a game-high plus-17, and went 2-of-4 from deep.

So, not quite the five or six three-pointers Nurse wanted, but progress. It’ll take time. A tendency to be too selfless with the ball is a habit Gasol’s long fought himself on. He says he’s discussed it with every coach he’s had, going all the way back to Lionel Hollins, who was the head coach in Memphis his rookie year.

“It’s just my nature,” he said. “Sometimes I get too unselfish, I don’t look for my shot, I’m not as assertive as I should be. And, in a weird way, that’s also selfish. So, finding that balance and staying in that aggressive mode, that shooting mode, is important. It’s something that I continuously work on.”

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These adjustments, they take time. Adjusting to a new team, a new role, a new city about 1,500km away from your family. An entirely new way of doing things. The unfortunate part is time’s a depleting commodity, with only 13 games remaining until the playoffs, when results will have to take precedence over process. That’s why this three-game stretch is so important for Gasol, for the Raptors. Finally some extended game time to adjust.

“However much run I get, I just want to play well and help my teammates be better,” Gasol said. “Whatever unit I’m in, I want to get my plus-minus up as high as possible and have an impact on the game. I want to be communicating and making my teammates’ jobs easier defensively because they know I have their back. And, offensively, I want to be either creating plays for them or for myself. That’s what I’m about.”

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