Gasol’s brief, iconic Raptors run may be nearing end after playoff struggles

Toronto Raptors' Marc Gasol (33) passes the ball away from Boston Celtics' Daniel Theis (27) during the first half of an NBA basketball conference semifinal playoff game Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Ashley Landis/AP)

The nature of the beast is this:

When a good team underperforms, someone on the team has to wear it, or at least some of it.

The Toronto Raptors are struggling mightily to score against the Boston Celtics. It’s the main reason they trail their second-round series 3-2, and it’s very likely going to cost them their season — unless they can survive a pair of elimination games beginning with Game 6 Wednesday night.

So, it’s time for Marc Gasol to wear it, or at least some of it.

Understand: The Raptors aren’t slumping offensively, they are cratering.

They are the worst offensive team remaining in the NBA post-season and against the Celtics they are averaging just 99.4 points per 100 possessions — a rate that would have them trail the worst offensive team in the regular season by five points per 100 possessions.

Defensively the Raptors remain ‘fine.’ They are limiting the Celtics to 106.8 points per 100 possessions, which trails the Raptors’ 104.7 regular-season mark but would still be good for 4th in the NBA.

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But their offensive woes are so pronounced that their net-rating is -7.4 — the same as the 20-win Atlanta Hawks this season.

And how much better would their defence be if the Raptors could force Boston to take the ball out of their own net a little more, rather than pushing the ball ahead off of misses and attacking while the Raptors scramble to get set?

Things could get worse, too, as the other member of the Raptors’ centre tandem, Serge Ibaka — you know, the one who can score a little — had a walking boot on his left ankle Tuesday and is questionable for Game 6.

Ibaka has been a bright spot for the Raptors on offence, chipping in with 11.8 points per game on 51.2 per cent shooting overall and 50 per cent from three, continuing a run of mostly positive play ever since the seeding games began back on Aug. 1.

A failure to this degree has many parents, obviously, and the Celtics are a good enough defensive team to bury all but the most lethal attacks — a category the Raptors don’t fall into.

But so far the only Raptors performing at or above regular-season levels against Boston have been Ibaka and OG Anunoby. To varying degrees Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell have been held responsible after games when they’ve struggled and to their credit each has had corresponding high points — Powell perhaps the exception so far, but at least the Raptors’ leading regular-season bench scorer keeps looking to score.

Maybe in Game 6 he will.

But Gasol’s offensive inability or indifference deserves its own special category. It’s almost like Raptors head coach Nick Nurse — and even segments of the Raptors fan base — have lowered their expectations for the $26-million player to the point that even him looking at the basket is worthy of an enthusiastic thumb’s up, like he’s the struggling 10-year-old on a house league team.

It’s as if his intangibles make up for Toronto playing 4-on-5 against one of the NBA’s best defences.

But even though Nurse — like any coach — defends his players in public, sometimes the shortcomings are simply too obvious to be unacknowledged.

“We don’t need a ton [of offence from him],” Nurse said Tuesday. “It’s not like we need 25 from him. But we need him to chip in with some, just because there’s opportunities there for him … that’s when we’re at our best, and we need to be at our best to win a game here.”

It’s all very strange given Gasol averaged 15.7 points a game before he was trade from Memphis to Toronto last season and this time last year led Spain to a world championship, a run highlighted by 33-point explosion by Gasol in a semi-final win over Australia.

Meanwhile Gasol has scored 27 points in five games against Boston and has yet to make a three pointer in 10 attempts, even though virtually all his three-point attempts have been wide open and uncontested.

He’s managed a single offensive rebound.

It’s a pattern.

In nine playoff starts — including four against the over-matched Brooklyn Nets in the first round — Gasol is shooting 40 per cent from the floor and is 3-of-21 from three; in seven seeding games before that he shot 6-of-21, or 28.6 per cent. Gasol is shooting 9-of-42 from deep in Florida, all while being largely ignored by the opposing defences.

The Celtics are using their big to hound the ball-handler — typically Lowry and VanVleet — after most pick-and-roll actions. By default that leaves Gasol open, and Gasol either won’t shoot or is converting wide-open shots at such an insignificant percentage that it almost doesn’t matter.

“Yeah, we certainly point ’em out, talk about ’em, show him on the film,” said Nurse. “[We] just got out of the film session – and continue to encourage him and tell him those are shots he needs to take.”

The why is a bit of a mystery. Gasol shot 40.2 per cent from deep before the 2019-20 season went on hiatus, even while in and out of the lineup due to recurring hamstring problems. He shot 38.2 per cent from three in the playoffs last year and 44.2 per cent with Toronto after arriving from Memphis.

When Gasol returned from the hiatus having lost considerable weight — remember ‘skinny Marc Gasol?’ — he made his intentions clear:

“What’s important [is] we’ll all be measured by winning games and getting another ring,” he said as the Raptors arrived at the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World Resort back in July. “That’s what we’re all for. We’re all trying to be in the best situation personally to do that.”

It hasn’t worked.

When the Raptors were rolling — they won 11 of their first 12 games in Florida — it didn’t matter and Gasol’s lack of offensive production could be written off because of contributions less obvious but no less significant, his defence and playmaking in particular.

But here’s the problem: It’s not just Gasol’s offence that has fallen off.

Sportsnet producer Chris Black dug up some of Gasol’s year-over-year advanced statistics and even in those areas, he’s falling short of his standards.

During last season’s championship run, Gasol was second among Raptors regulars in WinShares per 48 with .151; this season he’s last among their seven-man rotation at .036.

His deflections are off by nearly half (2.1 last year to 1.2 this year); he’s contesting less shots (from 9.5 to per game to 6.6) and opponents are having more success against him at the rim, converting 68 per cent of their plays compared to 60 per cent a year ago. His playmaking is his calling card offensively, but even there his assists are down and his turnovers are up.

The Raptors remain a better defensive team with him on the floor, a tribute to his smarts and will. But at what cost?

Gasol will forever be part of Raptors lore as the stabilizing veteran who was the finishing piece in a championship puzzle; making 7-foot-1, 300-pound Sixers centre Joel Embiid disappear will be his most famous trick, although his performance at the parade alone makes him deserving of a statue.

But barring a sudden reversal the 35-year-old pending free agent’s usefulness to the Raptors has largely run its course, and it will go down as a brief relationship that produced tremendous highs but ended with a whimper.

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