Honestly, this Boston-Toronto conference semifinals felt like it was five years in the making. Toronto came into its own in 2014, and Boston did the same the year following. Since then, the teams have always found themselves close to or at the very top of the Eastern Conference. Yet somehow, they never managed to cross paths in the playoffs. That was until yesterday.
When Boston and Toronto made easy work out of their first-round opponents last week, we were all eager to see the chess match between two of the Eastern Conference powers. The battle of wits between Nick Nurse and Brad Stevens. The battle of the East’s newest stars between Jayson Tatum and Pascal Siakam. The battle of acting jobs between Kyle Lowry and Marcus Smart. So many subplots to go off of. This was believed to potentially be the tightest series of the entire postseason.
Game 1 is now officially in the books, and the product thus far has been… underwhelming. Boston controlled the game from the tip. Toronto made things a little interesting at a few points, but the Celtics staved off any comeback attempt the Raptors mustered, as the former blew out the latter 112-94.
Nurse is most assuredly going to make plenty of adjustments for Game 2, and the Raptors’ three best players – Siakam, Lowry, and Fred VanVleet – combining to score 41 points on 13-for-44 shooting are performances we shouldn’t expect to be repeated going forward. Toronto’s first heavyweight match with the Celtics spurred many questions, but perhaps the most perplexing of them all is: What’s going on with Marc Gasol?
While it’s factually correct that Gasol at 35 years old now would surely be the reason why his production has cratered, this is the same guy who was the final piece of the Raptors’ championship puzzle. He’s not putting up the same numbers that he did in his heyday in Memphis, but Toronto never asked him to be that guy when they traded for him a year and a half ago.
Last year, he ran with the role Toronto gave him: Stretch the floor, make the right pass, play tight defense, and he more or less has continued that this season. In fact, when we saw those pictures of a slimmed-down Gasol before the season was set to resume, perhaps we were in for more of a vintage performance from the former Defensive Player of the Year in this year’s playoffs.
Nope! Gasol’s putting up 6.4 points on 39/21/78 splits as well as a 1.6-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. The Raptors haven’t been awful when he’s on the court – they are minus-0.5 with him on the floor – they are much better when he’s off, as they are plus-21.6.
Now a five-game sample clearly isn’t a big enough one to fairly judge Gasol’s performance, so it’s time we turn to the game film between the two Atlantic Division rivals.
Occam’s Razor will tell you that at 35, Gasol just can’t handle this level of grind anymore. He probably can’t, and it’s only going to get worse from here. Here he is getting beaten by Jaylen Brown in a transition layup.
Jaylen Brown coast to coast Euro Step. pic.twitter.com/Na273YZcLb
— Schopsss (@Schopsss1) August 30, 2020
Now we’ll cut some Gasol some slack here. The Raptors’ transition defense left him out to dry to deal with the 23-year-old Brown in a wide-open lane. Among players who played at least 30 minutes a game, Brown shot an OK near-49 percent around the rim this season, so while it would have been tough to stop him, maybe a little better contest could have gone a long way.
Stopping the hyper-athletic Brown is a tall task given the obvious advantage in foot speed. Not a whole lot of big men can stop a driving Brown one-on-one, so this is forgivable. But then getting beaten off the dribble by Daniel Theis for the and-1 just a few moments later? Not so much.
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) August 30, 2020
Theis has done an excellent job with the increased role Boston gave him this season. Among the many things he’s been able to do for them, beating his man at the three-point line to go coast-to-coast for a largely uncontested layup (plus drawing a foul) is not usually his forte. At Gasol’s age, maybe he just doesn’t have the footwork to cover active bigs on the perimeter, but his experience and IQ should still help him make an impact on the court.
If it has, it hasn’t phased the Celtics much as of yet. It’s not just that Gasol looks a step slow. He looks rather lethargic while out there. Check out this play where Tatum breezes by the flat-footed Gasol and gets another and-1 for Boston.
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) August 30, 2020
It’s one thing to be beaten on the pick and roll. It’s another to just… stand there and watch the guy waltz his way to the basket. While Tatum definitely would have had Gasol beat regardless if he tried anyway, seeing the latter basically do his best impression of a chair on defense is not a Gasol-like play on the defensive side. Believe it or not, this isn’t the lowest of the lowlights. That came just before halftime.
With the Raptors down 14 and trying to climb out of the hole they put themselves in, the Celtics cleverly dupe VanVleet and Gasol into thinking they are running a classic and pick and roll, which puts the Raptors’ defense out of sorts leading to an easy Kemba Walker three at the buzzer. Just watch Gasol.
Watch Gasol on defense pic.twitter.com/pkoBq5KZpe
— 🦅 (@PSkills_) August 31, 2020
After Boston’s early tomfoolery, Gasol halfheartedly jogs back to Grant Williams and completely misses Kemba sneaking right behind him for the open jumper just seconds before time expired. Granted, this play doesn’t happen without Kemba crossing both VanVleet and Gasol by extension, but Gasol could have at the very least gotten a hand in Kemba’s face after the fact.
So a few select bad plays and suddenly Gasol’s a liability, huh? As was stated earlier, the Raptors had a multitude of problems on their hands when playing the Celtics, and they should be able to learn from the mistakes that were made, but Gasol might very well be an issue overall in this series. Toronto was at their worst when Gasol was in the game, as they were minus-29.6 when he was on the floor. Add in that most of the damage came from the offensive end along with the defensive gaffes and Gasol might not be the best matchup for this series.
Should these struggles continue, don’t be surprised if Toronto opts to go smaller. Even if Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Chris Boucher match up better with Boston in the frontcourt, the Raptors would be taking a lot of experience and intangibles off the floor if Gasol gets benched. If Gasol’s performance in Game 1 wasn’t a fluke, who is to say that wouldn’t be a positive?