Raptors' Marc Gasol makes huge impact with starting job on the line

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Yahoo Canada Sports
Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol (33) reacts during a stoppage in the second overtime period of Game 3 of the NBA basketball playoffs Eastern Conference finals in Toronto on Sunday, May 19, 2019. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol (33) reacts during a stoppage in the second overtime period of Game 3 of the NBA basketball playoffs Eastern Conference finals in Toronto on Sunday, May 19, 2019. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

Marc Gasol was embarrassed. Coming off one of the worst playoff performances of his career, he somehow found a way to play even worse. The residual effects of him getting rejected at the rim, turning the ball over and getting abused in the paint all in the first quarter of Game 2 against the Bucks meant that his Raptors were facing an 0-2 deficit in the Eastern Conference Finals, and he took full ownership of it.

“The beginning kind of set us in a real bad spot and we couldn’t get a grip of the game early on and I take full responsibility for that,” Gasol said after putting up two points on 1-for-9 shooting and getting benched for significant portions of the game.

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Fortunately, he’s been there before. No, he’s never quite experienced a performance like he had against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2, but he knows what it’s like to be stacked up against the odds, and he’s tasted both the bitterness and joy of falling well short and emerging from the abyss.

Back in 2013, his Memphis Grizzlies went up against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals and got swept. Just a couple of rounds earlier, his team faced an 0-2 deficit against the Los Angeles Clippers and came back to win four straight games and take the series.

The hardest truth in the NBA, all of sports, and perhaps life itself is that there are no guarantees. You earn your keep. The Golden State Warriors seem destined for another title, but that seemed the case when they were up 3-1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, too. LeBron James seemed destined to rule the East till Father Time came calling, but then he decided to leave and have Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo battle for supremacy.

After two trying games and comments from head coach Nick Nurse that suggested a change to the starting lineup was on the horizon, it would have been easy to assume that the first head to roll would be of the man who had gone 3-for-20 in the series thus far and looked woefully short of confidence. Instead, head coach Nick Nurse stuck with the same starting five that just dispatched the best lineup in the NBA since the acquisition of Tobias Harris in both the regular season and playoffs.

Within the first minute of the game, Gasol fired a perfect bounce pass to a cutting Kyle Lowry (which didn’t result in a bucket) and used his incredible hands to deter a Khris Middleton drive on the other end to give his team possession of the basketball. A bit later, Leonard drew two defenders and kicked the ball back out to a wide open Gasol at the top of the arc. He canned the triple. On the ensuing possession, he helped Danny Green squeeze the ball out of Eric Bledsoe’s hands on a drive and caused a turnover.

In the first six minutes, Gasol scored as many points as he had in the first two games combined, showcasing all the attributes of his game that once made him a Defensive Player of the Year as well as a three-time All-Star. If the first few minutes of Game 2 were a tale of ineptitude, Game 3’s opening stanza was one of vindication and empowerment.

“We had the level of concentration and communication and effort that was required and we were a little bit more the aggressor than we had been the second game, and I felt responsible for that,” Gasol said after the game. “I allowed the offence to affect my defence, and that should not be the case.”

The beauty of Gasol is that he is one of the game’s great thinkers, one of a rare breed of players who can see a play before it happens and then make it come to fruition. During the regular season, that IQ became a hallmark of his play in Toronto and thereby the team. But, as teams have identified ways to gum up the Raptors’ offence, Gasol’s play had grown tentative on the offensive end and downright sloppy on defence.

With Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell fouled out in the fourth quarter after making their own significant impact on the game, it was Gasol who found a way to stay on the floor with five fouls and help Leonard lead the Raptors to a dramatic double-overtime victory.

With under two minutes remaining in the first overtime, Antetokounmpo got a desired switch off Leonard onto Gasol and drove straight at the Spaniard. Gasol maintained his position while retreating and the Greek Freak turned the ball over into the hands of Pascal Siakam. When Milwaukee took a 105-103 lead in the second overtime — their first since going up 2-0 out of the gate — it was Gasol who kept a possession alive on the offensive end, battling against Brook Lopez before draining a three-pointer to retake the lead.

“I was trying not to lunge and at the same time be the player that the team needed defensively and communicate and be aggressive but without using my hands as much,” Gasol said. “Thankfully, I was able to stay on the floor.”

After putting away All-Stars Nikola Vucevic and Joel Embiid, Lopez theoretically represented the matchup Gasol was supposed to win. His ability to add inflection points to the offence, hang with Lopez both in the post and the perimeter and add to the positional sense needed to cope with Antetokounmpo’s rim attacks were all advantages envisioned on paper. This 16 point, 12 rebound, seven assist, five block, four three-pointer performance proved it could play out on the hardwood.

On Sunday night, with the season and all that will follow it on the line, Gasol set aside his past failures, looked in the mirror and played for pride. It brought out the best in him, and then the team. Including both the regular season and playoffs, it is now the 11th time in 12 games that the Raptors have followed up a double-digit loss with a win.

The Bucks continue to be who they are and showed no let-up with a 2-0 advantage, but the Raptors and Gasol continue to find the best version of themselves when backed into a corner.

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