In the increasingly position-fluid NBA the traditional center has taken a back seat. After game 1 of the NBA finals, Marc Gasol proved that there is still room in the game for slower, bigger-bodied bigs to make an impact. Gasol’s high-IQ impact was felt on both ends of the floor and in the scoring column. In his best game to date as a Toronto Raptor, Gasol placed his name a little higher on Golden State’s scouting report.
Watching Gasol operate strategically and methodically at 7’1 and 34 years of age was like watching a more believable Uncle Drew. Nick Nurse did not bend to the Warriors’ reputation and take minutes away from the former NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Golden State runs a ton of weaving, whirring actions that make it difficult to find extended minutes for traditional bigs. Gasol countered Golden State’s athleticism with superior positioning and recognition on both ends. He was in the right place at the right time all night.
This is the first we have seen a big man have this kind of offensive impact against Golden State since Montrezl Harrell in round one. The Warriors did an impressive job limiting Kawhi Leonard, but their attention to detail waned in nearly every other defensive aspect. Gasol nailed two wide open threes in the first quarter and spent the rest of the game pacing the Raptors while Pascal Siakam had his coming out party.
The best part of his 20 points is that they were not the anomaly that many viewed Siakam’s breakout performance to be. Gasol was simply just doing the things he does well…very well! Harrell had huge success killing the Warriors in the pick and roll with Lou Williams. Golden State was able to keep Clint Capela from having the same effect in round two. Unlike Capela, Gasol has the entirety of the midrange to use for his offensive game. Defending Toronto’s pick and roll is not as simple as just dropping to protect the basket. Only 26.6 percent of Gasol’s shots have come within 10 feet of the rim during the playoffs. His ability to shoot and pass at a high clip from the mid-range keeps the Warrior defense both honest and stretched out.
Gasol’s breakout performance may have exposed the Kevin Durant sized kink in Golden State’s defensive armor. Durant is 7 feet tall and does not get the credit defensively that he should because of his transcendent offensive game. With Durant on the floor, the Warriors have an extra long elite help side defender with the length to stand up to opposing bigs combined with the agility to switch across positions. Draymond Green simply gives up too much size to play him at the center position for extended minutes without Durant. Instead, the Warriors will be forced to use a carousel of Looney, Bell, and maybe 40% of Demarcus Cousins. This issue will not go away until Durant returns.
Defensively, Gasol gave Toronto exactly what they wanted when they made the move to acquire him during the season. After turning Giannis Antetokounmpo from Superman to Clark Kent last round Gasol was key on multiple defensive stops throughout the game. What he lacks in agility he makes up for with savvy and anticipation. You will rarely find a clip of the Raptors defensively where Gasol is not pointing and communicating with his other teammates on the floor. He operates Peyton Manning style in their defense, calling out defensive audibles and recognizing plays before they happen.
It’s far from the most athletically impressive play last night, but Marc Gasol did a nice job here of helping on Klay Thompson in the post, forcing him to give up the ball, then rotating back into the paint to intercept Draymond Green’s pass. Great awareness, effort, and result. pic.twitter.com/hXohF79pym
— Positive Residual (@presidual) May 31, 2019
Golden State may look to attack Gasol directly more in game 2 by using his man to set higher screens on the floor. When Gasol is off the ball he is extremely intelligent and instinctive which leads to Raptor playoff opponents having a 3.3 percent higher rate of turnovers when he is on the floor, per Cleaning The Glass. The Warriors have never faced a center with this level of defensive intelligence during their runs, and Gasol is a much better fit to stay on the floor against them as opposed to less talented defenders like Kevin Love in past finals.
Gasol may not have a game with this many fireworks in it for the rest of the series. However, his presence is a major issue for the Durant-less warriors. All eyes will justifiably remain on Kawhi Leonard, but Marc Gasol may turn out to be the best mid-season acquisition of the entire NBA season and another home run for the Raptors front office in their 2019 campaign.