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Dave Feschuk: Gasol’s vision marks see change for Raptors

Dave Feschuk: Gasol’s vision marks see change for Raptors
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It could turn out to be the NBA’s most important late-season addition not named Marc Gasol. Unbeknownst to a basketball universe that already considered Steph Curry the greatest shooter in the history of the sport, Curry appears to have discovered a way to further enhance his performance.

It was about three weeks ago, shortly after he turned 31 on March 14, that the Golden State Warriors sharpshooter started wearing contact lenses to correct his deteriorating vision, this according to an article by Bay Area columnist Marcus Thompson. And funny how it works — suddenly seeing straight, Curry’s shooting eye promptly improved. In his first nine games with the newly tweaked peepers, the two-time MVP made a combined 56 three-pointers while shooting 51 per cent from deep. As if the Warriors’ obvious dominance wasn’t enough: Suddenly the world’s deadliest launcher of three-balls appears even deadlier.

It’s hard to think of a scenario in which another great athlete has found a way to suddenly strengthen his strong suit while shoring up a weakness that was heretofore unknown. Imagine Tiger Woods, in his prime, announcing to the world that he’d been secretly using ancient feather-stuffed golf balls while romping to those 14 major championships — and only now was he going to level the playing field by teeing up a fresh sleeve of state-of-the-art tour stock. Or maybe it’d be the equivalent of Alex Ovechkin, the greatest adjusted-for-era goal scorer in history, admitting he’d actually been using a carefully concealed wooden stick during those eight 50-goal campaigns — and now he’d like to try a few one-timers with one of those rocket-ship composite models. That, at least, seems to be roughly the parallel impact of Curry trading in his old eyes for his new, optically corrected ones. Or maybe Curry’s simply on one of his occasional hot streaks.

Which brings us back to the Raptors’ trade-deadline acquisition of Gasol, acquired from the Grizzlies in early February in the deal that sent a trio of beloved players — namely Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles — to Memphis along with a 2024 second-round pick. As Toronto entered the final days of the regular season this weekend, it was becoming crystal clear that the addition of Gasol could prove to be a key move in the lead-up to what is undoubtedly the most promising playoff run in franchise history. Though he’s been with the team for less than two months, his impact has been something to behold.

As former Sixers executive and analytics expert Ben Falk pointed out on Twitter this week, citing numbers heading into Friday’s game at Charlotte, the Raptors have been awfully impressive with Gasol on the floor, putting up a point differential of plus-16 per 100 possessions. As Falk pointed out, that kind of dominance is the stuff of a 73-win team. That Gasol has provided a bump in such short order has left teammates agog.

“It’s just weird that he stepped in day one and he was right on point … He doesn’t need a learning curve,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet told reporters recently. “He stepped in from day one and was able to adjust to pretty much everything we did. So that just speaks to his basketball IQ.”

“This time of year, that’s what we’re preaching — keep moving that thing and it’ll find the right guy — and the right guy will get the shot,” VanVleet said. “So passing up good (shots) for great (shots) sometimes … It’s not always going to be perfect. But as long as we share it, we like our chances.”

And suddenly the team the Raptors have been hinting at being all season has been showing itself in glimpses that are more and more convincing. Everyone knows Kawhi Leonard is among the game’s finest one-on-one destroyers in isolation. Nobody needs further evidence that Pascal Siakam is the league’s most improved player, not to mention a budding star. But it’s only lately that the Raptors have consistently knitted together a string of games in which the explosiveness of Leonard and Siakam has been made all the more threatening by a supporting cast that shares the ball and stretches the floor with a credible and consistent three-point threat.

Since the all-star break, no team — not even Curry’s Warriors — was making three-pointers as accurately as the Raptors heading into Friday’s game in Charlotte. Toronto was knocking down 42 per cent of their long-range attempts over that span. Danny Green was finding his range. Ditto VanVleet, and Norm Powell, and Kyle Lowry, and Gasol. (Oh, and as for the all-important defensive side of the ledger: Since the break, Toronto’s defensive rating ranked No. 1 in the East heading into Friday.)

In other words, on the eve of the playoffs the Raptors are finding something by finding each other. As Curry will attest and Gasol’s arrival goes to prove, there’s untapped power in improving your vision.
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