Last night’s game between the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks was pretty underwhelming — the teams combined for a mere 88 points at halftime, on 35.8% shooting combined — but we got to see the debut of Marc Gasol and got some great hints into who he’ll fit in with this Raptors team.
Let’s get to the thoughts:
Who Should Start...
Marc Gasol came off the bench in his first game as a Raptor, as you might expect. He’s still learning the schemes and is still dealing with the emotions of being traded for the first time in his career.
Going forward though, seeing who starts at the four and five positions is going to be interesting. Setting egos aside momentarily, there are basketball cases for starting Gasol and Pascal Siakam, Gasol and Serge Ibaka, or leaving the status quo and starting Ibaka and Siakam and brining Gasol off the bench.
The Raptors are 31-12 when Ibaka and Siakam start together, and the “regular” lineup (Ibaka, Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Kyle Lowry) has a net rating of 6.9, which is ninth among five-man lineups that have played 300+ minutes together. How do you complain about that? The starters hasn’t set the world on fire lately — see the last two games, against inferior opponents, where the starters fell behind immediately out of the gate — but it’s tough to make a case for change.
The idea of staring both Gasol and Ibaka is also a tricky one. It’s a big lineup, and the Raptors saw success with that last season, but I’m not sure it works now (imagine starting Ibaka against Philadelphia, with Jimmy Butler at the four? Yikes). The added benefit here is Siakam brings his playmaking and speed to the bench, but he’s been so great as a starter, it’s hard to make that change.
And how about Gasol with the bench? Did you see the way the ball was flying around last night? Norman Powell got so many open looks, he ended up bricking half of them because he was so confused by how open he was. Gasol’s playmaking and defense might be the thing that group needs to rediscover its spark.
Part of me wants to see change — stats be damned, I think the starters have been underwhelming lately — but part of me thinks you stick with what’s working.
And who Should Finish?
The more interesting question might be who should be closing out games. Toronto’s offense has been fine down the stretch during close games (they’re scoring 10.7 points per game in the clutch, good for second in the league, and have a net rating of 9.8, which is ninth); sure, we can quibble about individual plays at the end, but those will likely continue to mainly feature Leonard isolations, so the other four guys don’t matter as much.
But the other four and half minutes of crunch time? It would seem Gasol’s passing and offensive rebounding would be a boon to an already potent offense here, and his mobility and smarts on defense can only help as well.
On the other hand — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Ibaka has had a great season and those stats above mainly feature him, so it’s not like there’s a real argument for change, other than changing for the sake of it.
Ultimately I suppose it might just come down to matchups. I don’t envy Nick Nurse’s job in figuring this one out!
The Captain of the Defense
On the broadcast last night Matt Devlin said Marc Gasol can become the “Captain of your defense” and I thought that was a great way to describe what he brings to the table at that end of the floor.
Gasol may not be the fastest guy, or the most fleet of foot, but he always knows where to be on D. It’s rare to see him caught out of position, and if he is, it’s just a matter of athleticism, it’s not because of a mistake, or because the offense fooled him.
Last night, he got a deflection in the paint almost as soon as he came into the game, that led to two Siakam free throws. In the third, he cut off Kevin Knox on the baseline, knocked the ball away, and saved it inbounds to Patrick McCaw (showing me that I might be underestimating his athleticism, after all). He drew a charge two plays later.
In the fourth he showcased his excellent post D, frustrating DeAndre Jordan into a near travel, forcing him to spin baseline, and then blocking Jordan’s shot.
And all throughout the game, he could be seen visibly talking to his new teammates on D, calling out screens and assignments.
I think I’m really gonna enjoy Captain Marc on that end.
Give Me All the Danny Green Blocks
Hey, speaking of defense, I don’t think I’ve given Danny Green a proper shout-out for his uncanny timing on blocking shots in transition, yet. It’s overdue! Check this out:
Green is fifth among all guards in blocked shots this season, and I swear 95% of them have come in transition situations. Green has brought so much to the Raptors this season, and so much of it comes out in the little things, and his timing and effort on the defensive end is certainly right there.
Green seems to have broken out of his mini-slump on offense, too, notching double-figures for the second straight game and hitting 4-of-6 from downtown.
Is Kawhi Leonard OK?
Green may be breaking out of his slump, but Kawhi Leonard looks to be going the other way. He’s been totally flat lately. After scoring 20 or more in 22 straight games, he’s only hit it once in his past four — and that, against Philly, was mainly thanks to his 16 free throws. He only scored 11 points last night, which is a season-low, and he’s shooting a ghastly 34% over the last four games.
Is Leonard tired? That seems to be the likeliest explanation, especially since a number of those missed shots are hitting front iron, but he’s only played in seven of the last 12 games. Is it rust, then? But he scored 30+ in the first two after his four-game rest.
Perhaps Leonard is just dragged down by the bog of winter, as we all are? Or zonked out by the long NBA season? I’m certainly tired after everything that’s happened this week, and I know I’m looking forward to a little break from writing around the All-Star break. Hopefully the break does Leonard some good as well.
In conclusion, how about a little shout-out to all the Raptors fans in MSG last night? There were audible “let’s go Raptors” chants, and the cheer for Gasol when he first checked in were louder than for any Knick all night! Gotta love the way our fans travel.