Scott Stinson: Marc Gasol’s ‘good debut’ with the Raptors only made a mild dent on the stat sheet

Scott Stinson: Marc Gasol’s ‘good debut’ with the Raptors only made a mild dent on the stat sheet
The New York Knicks are not the sternest of tests, you see. They came into Saturday night’s contest with all of 10 wins, a record that is almost the inverse of Toronto’s, and their greatest asset, at present, is cap space.

The Raptors, outside of Kyle Lowry and Danny Green, forgot how to shoot, and yet they still managed to beat Cap Space by a score of 104-99.

Marc Gasol, in his Toronto debut, only made a mild dent on the stat sheet — seven points, six rebounds — coming off the bench, but he seemed pleased to have not felt totally out of sorts. He said the biggest surprise of the night was how many Raptors fans were in Madison Square Garden. The Memphis Grizzlies used to have a few fans in road arenas, he said, “but not as much as you guys.” He smiled. “Well, us, now.” Like the playbook, it will take a little while to get those pronouns comfortable.

Toronto Raptors’ Marc Gasol, right, shoots over New York Knicks’ DeAndre Jordan during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, in New York. Frank Franklin II/AP

But the Raptors all said that it was evident that the big man was a player of quality.

“The play-making ability, the big body, the defensive mindset, the defensive ability. Marc’s an all-NBA defender; he can do everything,” Kyle Lowry said.

“That was a good debut,” said head coach Nick Nurse. “You could see a class player out there, without question.”

The team returns home now after a 3-0 road trip for short two-game homestand that leads into the All-Star break. Nurse says he’s going to be doing a lot of experimenting and a lot of evaluating with his new-look roster — at least a couple of pieces of which are still to come on the buyout market — and then will make some lineup decisions as the playoffs near.

Toronto Raptors’ Serge Ibaka (9) rebounds as New York Knicks’ Noah Vonleh (32) and Kevin Knox (20) fight for control of the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, in New York. Frank Franklin II/AP

All of that is reasonable, but it also means that the next two months will tell the Raptors a lot about what they have in their rookie coach. Nurse’s initial run as an NBA bench boss after several years as a Toronto assistant has gone about as well as could be expected, under the circumstances. The team was only at full health once over its first 56 games and its two All-Stars, Lowry and Kawhi Leonard, have each missed significant time. Despite a cooling off period after a torrid start, the Raptors are within a game of the top seed in the East, with a buttery-soft schedule remaining. Perhaps more importantly than the on-court results, Nurse has kept everyone happy, or at least not unhappy, including noted fun guy Leonard and Lowry, who is not what you would call a pleaser. He moved Serge Ibaka from power forward to centre, Jonas Valanciunas from starting centre to backup, and replaced OG Anunoby with Pascal Siakam in the starting lineup. In a league in which players are rarely afraid to air their grievances, the Raptors have been drama-free, and with the exception of Anunoby, the players have flourished in new roles. Credit should go to Nurse for some of that.

But here is where things get tricky. Gasol has declared himself happy to contribute in any way he can, which isn’t a surprise. He came to Toronto with a reputation as a team-first guy, a veteran who just wants to win. Against the Knicks, he came off the bench and immediately flashed his passing savvy, finding open teammates repeatedly despite probably knowing few of the plays. Once he gets more comfortable in Nurse’s system, he would be an undeniable weapon against opponent’s second units.

But the Raptors didn’t surrender three rotation players so they could shore up their bench with an All-NBA talent. Nurse will have to work Gasol into the starting unit at some point, either pushing Ibaka back to power forward and Siakam to the bench, or replacing Ibaka with the starters and leaving Siakam to continue his breakout season among the starting five. Playing Gasol alongside Ibaka would make the Raptors bigger, but slower, and playing him with Siakam would sacrifice the chemistry that Ibaka and Lowry have displayed this season. There’s no easy answer, and beyond the on-court impact Nurse is going to have to sweet-talk someone into taking on a lesser role.

Perhaps the coach can avoid that awkwardness by continuing his mad-scientist impression, a constant juggling of lineups that suggests few players are defined as starters or bench players. Nurse has said, since training camp, that he has never cared for that binary classification. The players know who is coming off the bench, though. And if Nurse can settle on a starting lineup that doesn’t result in the press corps having to break out the “disgruntled” adjective, it will be another gold star on his first-year resume.

After the win in New York, Lowry was asked about the impact that Gasol could have on Toronto’s defence.

“He won the Defensive Player of the Year award, he knows what he’s doing,” Lowry said. “He’s not going to be overly aggressive, he’s not under-aggressive, it’s just right. It’s all a feel thing for him.”

He is, in other words, a huge asset. And figuring out how to deploy him will be Nurse’s biggest challenge yet.

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