TORONTO — The Golden State Warriors have pushed the center position to the brink of extinction, but Marc Gasol isn’t going down without a fight.
Thirty-four year-old centers aren’t even supposed to survive against the Warriors, let alone thrive. Golden State’s aggressive brand of smallball has rendered All-Stars useless in past playoff runs — Kevin Love was too soft, Rudy Gobert wouldn’t leave the paint, LaMarcus Aldridge couldn’t bully his way inside — but Gasol picked the Warriors apart to the tune of 20 points on 10 shots.
For what Gasol lacks in lateral quickness, he compensates with genius-level decision-making. He didn’t so much dominate the Warriors so much as he solved them. Gasol makes immediate reads, and that’s the only way to unseat the two-time champions. The Warriors not only overwhelm you with sheer talent, but they also outsmart opponents with their movement. However, Gasol kept making the right reads to keep the Raptors one step ahead all night.
On offense, the Warriors trapped Kawhi Leonard with a heavy dose of double teams, but Gasol beat the traps with his exquisite positioning. While Leonard fended off two defenders, Gasol would either flare out for the open three, or establish post position against a smaller defender while the Warriors scrambled to recover. Gasol was gun shy in previous games throughout this playoff run, but off a hunch from something he saw in film study, Gasol came prepared to attack.
“If you watched the previous series against Portland they did that with Damian Lillard and C.J. [McCollum], so we assumed that there was a chance they were going to blitz Kawhi. So we were understanding the spacing that we were going to have and what kind of shot was going to be open, what kind of rotations they were going to do,” Gasol said after the game.
Defensively, the Warriors typically stretch centers beyond their limits with their perimeter scorers, but Gasol was once again up to the challenge. Gasol was nimble on the perimeter, timely with his help, and created turnovers by catching the Warriors off-guard with surprise double teams. There were a handful of miscommunications and some botched rotations to clean up going forward, but Gasol was by no means a liability despite the Warriors’ history of exploiting centers.
“His IQ is really high, he knows how to get out there, and he's shown over the last few games, or maybe more than that, that he's pretty good when he gets a mismatch on a shooter,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “He went up in the last series and guarded [Khris] Middleton really well, and when there would be a breakdown, he would end out way out on the floor on those guys. And I thought he did a decent job on some of those guys tonight. Just really good reactions.”
So long as the Warriors remain in their current condition, there’s no reason why Gasol can’t continue to thrive. Golden State is short on wings with Kevin Durant injured and Andre Iguodala being limited, and so they’re forced to keep their centers on the floor. DeMarcus Cousins’ mobility isn’t 100 percent due to a torn quad, Jordan Bell is error prone, and Kevon Looney is rail-thin. Gasol is easily the best player of that group, and he showed that in Game 1. And so long as Gasol can stay on the floor, the Raptors won’t have to compromise their identity.
However, the calculus changes if Durant eventually returns. Golden State could then shift to a smallball lineup, and that’s when Gasol’s physical limitations will become unpalatable. It’s one thing for Gasol to trap Stephen Curry on the 3-point arc when his man is a non-scorer like Looney or Bell — it’s another issue altogether if that’s Draymond Green slipping to the basket. That being said, Durant has yet to even progress to on-court activities, and Warriors coach Steve Kerr noted that he wasn’t comfortable playing Durant until he got in a full practice.
For now, the Raptors landed the first punch, and it’s on the Warriors to respond. Golden State alluded to defensive adjustments after Game 1, but Toronto has proven adaptable throughout the playoffs. If the Warriors elect to stay closer to Gasol, that will open more room for Leonard to operate. There will always be a give-and-take against the greats, and the Raptors have a good shot to win it all so long as Gasol keeps making the Warriors pay.
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