Marc Gasol fits in with Raptors like a pro, even as the pronouns give him trouble

Marc Gasol fits in with Raptors like a pro, even as the pronouns give him trouble
Marc Gasol will undoubtedly receive a very long and very warm welcome when he makes his Scotiabank Arena debut for the Raptors sometime late in the first quarter of Monday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets.

If Raptors fans are one thing, it’s supportive. They will let the veteran centre know how much they appreciate what he can bring to their favourite team.

Raptors centre Marc Gasol, getting a high five from Fred VanVleet on Saturday, was impressive finding unfamiliar faces in his debut against the Knicks.  (Nathaniel S. Butler / GETTY IMAGES)

Gasol might be a bit taken aback — he is, after all, replacing a big-time favourite in Jonas Valanciunas — but he will not be entirely surprised.

There was something about hearing a loud chorus of “Let’s go, Raptors” in Madison Square Garden on Saturday that would have prepared him for what’s to come. Those cheers caught him off guard.

“How many fans from the Raptors in the stands,” Gasol said Saturday, when asked what surprised him a 104-99 win over the Knicks. “Memphis fans? We get some fans (on the road) but not as many as you guys, or us, now.”

One can forgive Gasol the momentary lapse in pronoun usage; he had spent his entire 11-year NBA career with the Grizzlies before Thursday’s trade to Toronto and he’ll probably mess up the “we” and “us” more than a couple of times in the first week or so.

What he won’t mess up is the renewed feeling of purpose he has with a team legitimately hunting an NBA championship.

He was beloved in Memphis — the Grizzlies have already said they’ll retire his No. 33 some day — but his championship chances were nil this season.

He is reinvigorated with Toronto, playing for a team that has a 41-16 record, third best in the league, a game out of first in the East, and with a healthy roster ready for a 25-game sprint to the playoffs.

“Yeah, the energy you feel around this team is great and everyone talks about the same thing,” Gasol said after his six-point, seven-rebound, 19-minute debut against the Knicks.

While Gasol felt the energy, the Raptors felt an immediate impact from a 34-year-old known around the league for his on-court smarts. He was playing primarily with Toronto’s second unit, after one shootaround with the group, yet he made a series of quick and decisive passes. His first defensive play was to get a steal after he deflected a pass and then start the Raptors in transition. He may not have known all his teammates’ names, but he knew how to make plays to help them.

“I think for a guy that hasn’t been with us, you could see the offence moving pretty well,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s a guy that’s in the right spots to keep things flowing. You throw it to him and there’s cutting going on, there’s flow to the offence. You don’t throw it to him and he’s setting a good screen, roll, kick-out. I thought he looked really, really good.”

Gasol opens myriad opportunities for Nurse. The coach sees him as a defensive anchor — Gasol could direct traffic from the middle of a 2-3 zone like few players the Raptors have had — and the Spaniard showed Saturday night that, offensively, he has an innate knowledge of where open teammates might be when he’s operating with the ball at the elbow.

Even with only 25 games left until the real challenge of the playoffs begins, Nurse has more than enough time to figure things out. He’s been doing it for 20 years.

“I have been in these situations 100 times, maybe 300 or 400 times, where I have had a guy that hasn’t practised and plays,” he said before Saturday’s game. “That’s minor-league basketball a little bit. You have to know that and you can’t call whatever you want. I (have to) call simple stuff that I know he will understand, things that are an NBA play or NBA terminology ... So it shortens it down a little bit but I don’t worry about it too much.”
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