The pair were teammates for more than 10 seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, a run which included seven straight playoff appearances and left their respective names imprinted all over the Grizzlies record books and, in many ways, the city of Memphis.
Sunday night at Scotiabank Arena marked their first NBA game as opponents, with Gasol having been traded to the Toronto Raptors last season to kick off the Grizzlies’ rebuild and Conley being traded to the visiting Utah Jazz in the off-season.
They know each other like brothers.
“We started over 800 games together and went through a lot of stuff, and when you go through a lot of stuff as men and as basketball players you create a bond that is unbreakable,” said Gasol before the Raptors hosted Utah at Scotiabank Arena. “We both came in as very young, single – or with girlfriends – men in the NBA and now we’re fathers of two and we take a lot of pride in that.”
The bigger brother came out on top this time, with Gasol’s Raptors out-lasting the visiting Jazz 130-110, their seventh-straight win, improving Toronto to 15-4 on the season and extending their team-record home winning streak to start a season to nine games.
In the old days, Gasol and Conley would have commiserated or celebrated together afterwards.
In Memphis, Gasol and Conley sat beside each other on the team plane and one row apart on the team bus. Now, all they had time for was an embrace on the floor and some words in the tunnel to finish off a visit that kicked off with dinner on Saturday night at Gasol’s house, with Gasol’s young children running their Dad’s pal a little ragged.
Gasol didn’t have to think about what to serve. He knows what his former point guard like to eat and, more importantly, what he doesn’t.
“A little pasta,” said Gasol. “… Obviously sitting next to him. I couldn’t go too harsh on him and feed him some sushi or sea urchin.”
But after all these years together, Conley was treated to a Gasol first – at least in Toronto.
With just over two minutes left in the first quarter, Conley was witness to the big Spaniard’s first ‘heat check’ as a Raptor — a shot taken slightly out of rhythm or out of character by a player who is beginning to feel it offensively.
“He’s was feeling good,” said Conley afterwards. “I knew it was going up when he got the ball.”
It was a tone setter on a night when the Raptors could – for the most part – get whatever they wanted offensively, kicking off a week of tough competition that continues Tuesday when the Raptors host the Miami Heat.
Gasol missed his early-clock, long three, but by that point he had already exploded offensively – at least by his standards. He hit his first three to open the scoring for the Raptors – and answer for Conley’s three that started the game – and then knocked down another in short order. He even cut through the lane and caught a Pascal Siakam pass for an even more rare dunk for 12-year veteran.
Maybe Gasol had something to prove to his old friend? But by the time he sat down to give way to Serge Ibaka making his return after missing a month with sprained ankle, Gasol had 11 points and the Raptors led 37-20 after the first quarter, on their way to a 77-37 halftime lead. It was a season-high for points in half, the 40-point bulge a franchise record halftime lead.
Gasol was a big part of it – his 11 first-quarter points exceeding his season average of 5.8 points a game – giving a glimpse of what the Raptors’ ceiling might be if and when he is more assertive offensively.
“I knew he was going to do that, somehow,” said Conley. “I’ve watched a lot of the [Raptors’] games and I told the guys ‘I guarantee you he’s going shoot a lot more tonight, whether he’s playing me or whatever, he’s going to be aggressive. With him stretching the floor like that early it really threw off what we were trying to do, but that’s what makes him so dangerous. He’s capable of doing it any night and doing whatever it takes for his team.”
For Gasol, it was what the Raptors needed as they were looking for a way to neutralize Jazz big man Rudy Gobert, arguably the best rim protector in the NBA.
“Having the ball out there pulls him away from the basket because they want to put pressure on me, make those passes at the elbow harder to see,” said Gasol. “There are different ways to get him away from the basket. Once he goes and collapses, spacing and moving without the ball, it’s kind of important.
“I got a dunk too, which is pretty remarkable.” .
Gasol reverted to form after that. He took one shot and didn’t score again. He’s made his mark as a Raptor not as a scorer – even though he averaged a career-high 19.5 points two years ago while working the pick-and-roll with Conley – but by doing a little bit of everything else.
Fortunately, his first-quarter spurt was all the scoring the Raptors needed from him on a night when everyone else was doing damage, led by Siakam, who led all scorers with 35, while Fred VanVleet had 21 points and 11 assists and Norm Powell chipped in with 15 points as the Raptors shot 19-of-36 from the three-point line.
Conley had 20 points in his 25 minutes, but the Jazz had dug themselves too big a hole for him to truly enjoy and bragging rights.
Things wobbled briefly in the third quarter as the Raptors not only took their foot off the gas but appeared to fall asleep at the wheel. The Jazz put up 49 points in the third to the Raptors’ 30, led by Conley, who scored 13 by making all five of his field-goal attempts, including a pair of triples.
That surge was notable of itself as Conley – like Gasol – has struggled at times to find his comfort level offensively, posting one of the least productive offensive seasons of his career. After averaging a career-high 21.1 points and 6.4 assists last season, Conley is limping along at 13.9 points a game while shooting just 36 per cent from the floor.
Seeing his old friend seemed to get him going too, even it’s still taking some getting used to.
“It still seems weird seeing him in a different jersey,” said Conley. “I feel comfortable in my jersey now, but just seeing him in a Raptors jersey and about to play against him just doesn’t really compute yet until probably when we get out there. It’s new territory for us.”
Conley said he became a Raptors fan during the playoffs, watching nearly every game. Gasol Facetimed Conley after the Raptors clinched the title from the floor at Oracle Arena, and Conley said he especially enjoyed seeing Gasol cut loose at the Raptors’ victory parade.
“I haven’t seen that Marc for a while,” he joked.
But what the friends might have most in common is their ability to help elite teams without necessarily putting up career-best numbers.
“When you have so much talent there is going to [need] to be a guy who makes everything flow and makes everything happen,” said Gasol. “Sets screens and gets in the play and gets rid of the ball that keeps guys in mind and in the right place at all times, encourages guys to keep taking good shots and gets on theme when they’re not taking good shots, Experience and maturity help with all that, I think.”
Even as the Jazz stumbled to 1-3 on their road trip, coach Quinn Snyder could find the good in his new point guard, by way of Memphis.
“He’s got the ability to connect with all kinds of different people,” Snyder said. “He does that without trying. He’s about who he is. It speaks to his character. It’s one of those things that makes him an excellent leader is he’s able to put himself in other peoples’ shoes.”
In that sense Conley and Gasol are together again, playing the same role even if they are playing on different teams a conference apart.