Photo: Kyle Terada (Getty)

Marc Gasol has been a prime component of the Raptors’ asphyxiating defense—one of the most switchable, responsive, obnoxiously needling teams in recent memory. His post D has been stout enough to knock Joel Embiid a notch down from series-defining to merely good. By Giannis Antetokounmpo’s own admission, Gasol had a huge hand in the Bucks’ woes in the conference finals. And unlike so many slow-footed bigs, he has the timing and footwork not to get run off the floor by Warriors small-ball. He’s the best center still suiting up for NBA games, by a large margin.

Even at 255 pounds, 7-foot-1, and 34 years of age, Gasol can switch onto shifty smalls on the perimeter when necessary, acquitting himself well in space. It is true art to watch this yeti of a man delicately patter out to close out sharpshooters at the arc, blocking all daylight with a few well-chosen steps and a huge extended arm. When Gasol is on the floor, the Raptors have maintained a punishing 101 defensive rating this postseason. (For reference, the regular season’s best defense, the Bucks, was at 105.) He kept at it during Toronto’s Game 1 win in the Finals, with beautifully timed plays like this patient block on Jordan Bell.

But it always felt like the big Spaniard, blessed with soft shooting touch and passing feel, could do a little more to unconstipate this offense. In Game 1, at least, he did exactly that as he put 20 points on the board, his best mark of the postseason. It couldn’t have waited much longer: Kawhi Leonard badly needed some help out there. The dude is hobbling around there hurt, blank-faced but for the occasional wince, staring into constant double-teams. Gasol expected the Raptors’ hero to be swamped by the defense, and savvily positioned himself on the floor simplify the passes for Leonard. By blitzing Leonard, the Warriors were asking basically any other Raptor to make a play. The Raptors are lucky to have a decision-maker as reliable as Gasol to receive the pass, read the floor, and act decisively. This plays to his strengths.

Advertisement

“If you watched the previous series against Portland they did that with Damian Lillard and C.J. [McCollum], so we assumed that there was a chance they were going to blitz Kawhi,” Gasol said after the victory. “So we were understanding the spacing that we were going to have and what kind of shot was going to be open, what kind of rotations they were going to do.”

Advertisement

He benefits from another side effect of the double-team: If Golden State throws bodies at Kawhi, someone has been left open. Gasol, a career 36-percent shooter from three, is absolutely good enough to punish a Warriors defense daring him to shoot, and shoot he must, even if he doesn’t always look eager to let that sleepy-bear set shot fly. This is about as much internal conflict as you’ll see in a guy who’s been shooting 40 percent from the arc in an excellent postseason run:

Advertisement

There are real benefits to being able to keep a genuine 7-footer on the floor against the Warriors. If they get creative with their screening, they can procure mismatches where Gasol can feast. Late in the first half, a switch off a pick-and-roll left Steph Curry stranded on Gasol, where he made a good-faith but ultimately futile effort to front the big man. Gasol bided his time until the opportunity for an entry pass opened up, grabbed the ball, immediately rose over Curry and drained one of his easier buckets of the night. Gasol should be assertive establishing himself in the post whenever the Warriors’ coverages get discombobulated.

Advertisement

Perhaps best of all for the Raptors, nothing about Gasol’s night out was anomalous, besides his six trips to the line in the first game of what promises to be a very physical series. Unlike Pascal Siakam’s spontaneous combustion, Marc Gasol isn’t doing anything that’s especially surprising to see Marc Gasol do. He’s just doing it well.