Bruce Arthur: Gasol’s power and grace help Raptors think big
|Toronto Star 15 May 2019 at 18:19|
MILWAUKEE—Marc Gasol is a big man. That much is obvious, of course. The 34-year-old Spaniard is seven feet tall and solid, built like a walking brick. He has shed the extra pounds he carried when he was young, and now runs a charitable foundation devoted to healthy eating for young people. He remains a mountain of a man.
Marc Gasol is a big man. In the post-game tumult of Toronto’s Game 7 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round — at the end of seven games of bruising combat that left still more fingernail slices on Gasol’s scarred arms — the Raptors centre celebrated for a moment and then sought out Joel Embiid. The Sixers centre was in tears, half-blindly leaving the court. After seven games, Gasol stopped the giant centre one last time.
“I just told him how I felt,” said Gasol before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final against the Milwaukee Bucks. “I care about him. As a big man, I understand what he comes from. We share the same agent. Before he even got to the NBA, he was living in his place. I heard a lot of stories about Joel growing up. I’ve always been a big fan of him and his personality. It’s between me and him.”
The clip circulated widely, and should have. Gasol tapped Embiid on the chest, grabbed him, hugged him, speaking in his ear. He was insistent. Embiid went to keep moving but Gasol kept talking, and finally the Cameroonian laid his big head on Gasol’s chest, heaving with emotion. Gasol kept speaking into his ear. Embiid wept.
“Sports are emotional, man,” said Gasol. “You invest so much. You carry that (and give) so much to something. When it’s over, you kind of melt, and it’s normal. It shows how much you care.
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“I thought it was needed for him to know how much I care for him, how much I respect him, how much I like his game, and how many times he’s going to be on the other side of losing. I don’t know. To me, it’s a normal reaction.”
It isn’t normal in the grander scheme of things, but it is normal to Gasol. He is a member of Spanish basketball royalty who spent some of last summer on a boat in the Mediterranean trying to rescue refugees. He believes in empathy. He always has.
“Marc has a lot of class, obviously I have a lot of respect for him,” Embiid said after Game 7. “I won’t share anything, but he was just talking to me, making sure to let me know that I’ll be right there at this moment, and further in my career.”
Gasol greatly limited Embiid after devouring Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic in the first round, and now against Milwaukee the challenge changes. Milwaukee’s biggest man is Brook Lopez, who has reinvented himself as a three-point bomber who protects the rim at the other end. The Bucks will play Giannis Antetokounmpo at centre at times, and his alien super-steps and galactic athleticism seem a bad match for Gasol, whose defensive brilliance can be limited by his feet. It can be hard, being a big man.
“If it’s required and necessary, and I can give him fits and problems, I’m obviously up for it,” said Gasol. “To me it’s going to be a team effort. It’s not a one-man job to slow down Giannis. It’s not going to be Pascal (Siakam), Kawhi (Leonard), Danny (Green), Serge (Ibaka), myself. It’s going to be a team effort. And it’s not just going to be one effort. It’s going to be multiple efforts.”
But more importantly, he will have to shoot. Gasol has averaged seven shot attempts per game in the post-season, half of them threes, even as the Sixers dared him to shoot, with Embiid sagging to the middle of the floor. Gasol attempted more than nine shots once, and it helped them win Game 4. Lopez prefers to sag; Giannis prefers to help off his man, and use his wingspan and size to wreak havoc.
The Bucks didn’t play Toronto with Gasol this season, but in their matchups they were content to let Ibaka shoot: he averaged 18.5 shot attempts against Milwaukee, his highest against any team by a wide margin. Gasol loves to pass. But he shot .442 from three as a Raptor, and was at .390 before Game 1. He will have to shoot.
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“To me it’s about getting the rhythm, and getting the shots up there, and playing within the offence,” said Gasol. “I know I’m not going to get my play called much, but I understand that when I have the ball I can make things happen, either for me or for somebody else. You’ve got to keep in your mind the whole time, I’m in rhythm, I’m in rhythm, I’m in rhythm.
“Whatever decision you have to make out there it has to be fast. Whatever it is, obviously if you’re open, you’re going to shoot it.”
He said that before Game 1, of course — before the challenge. Gasol has been a defensive player of the year, an all-star, a man of uncommon empathy who calls himself a regular guy. He said he would be ready for the moment, and the Raptors hoped he will be. Four wins from an NBA final, and Marc Gasol is a big man. He will have to be huge.