Heading into Friday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, it was announced the Raptors would start Marc Gasol for the second time since acquiring him in a trade. Dealing with large centres like the Blazers’ Jusuf Nurkic wasn’t the prime reason to get Gasol, but it’s definitely a reason; there’s also his high-level defensive acumen and elite playmaking ability to consider too.
The questions around Gasol in Toronto are instead about fit — as in, can the Raptors get Gasol as comfortable as possible, with as many of teammates as possible, as quickly as possible? And then: what kind of difference does that make for Toronto? “You have to be a basketball player, and you have to be ready to do both,” said Gasol on playing as a starter or off the bench. “Because it’s about doing what’s best for the team.”
To that end we can look to the outcome of tonight’s Raptors win, a 119-117 nail-biter against an impossible to kill Blazers team. In 32 minutes, Gasol put up 19 points (on 9-of-13 shooting), eight rebounds, and six assists, along with two steals and a block to finish the evening a team-leading +23. Gasol wasn’t the only reason the Raptors were able to fend off Portland; in truth, he wasn’t even the main reason. But having him out there in various lineup combinations has already begun to feel like a salve — as if, much like Kyle Lowry’s presence, the rest of the Raptors rise to meet Gasol. “You’ve got a guy that can play out of the high post,” said Lowry of his new teammate. “Give him the ball and let him make plays; cut, move, and I could be a secondary option where I can come off and score a little bit more and he can play make. It helps.”
And if nothing else, Gasol’s aura on the team has indeed appeared to rejuvenate Lowry’s play. The Raptors’ emotional leader has looked all the way like his old self as of late. Tonight, Lowry played a game-high 40 minutes, put in 19 points (on 7-of-13 shooting, including 3-of-8 from deep), and had ten assists and seven rebounds. Lowry was also involved in basically every heady crunch time play for Toronto — including making a delirious scoop shot, playing some stout defense on the Blazers’ Damian Lillard, and seemingly coming up with every loose ball in his vicinity. Lowry also played his part perfectly in the Raptors’ 1-3 screen-and-roll sets that allow Kawhi Leonard to get switched onto smaller guards and go in for back-breaking game-winning shots.
That the Raptors’ needed Kawhi’s late-game heroics are, if we’re being honest, a tad disappointing. Toronto played the Blazers evenly for most of the first half, with only C.J. McCollum appearing as a dynamite threat. The Blazers’ gunner had 17 first half points and finished with 35 for the game, but Toronto faced the blizzard with one of their own. In the third quarter, the Raps would even push their lead to 16 points. The good work would unfortunately be undone by an unusually cold bench unit led by Jeremy Lin (eight points on 4-of-8 shooting) and Serge Ibaka (two points on 0-for-5 shooting with seven boards). The Raptors’ offense, which had looked powerful for most of the game, gave way, and in response their team defense faltered too. In the face of a never-wavering Portland team, this meant watching the Blazers reclaim the lead in the fourth quarter.
Under ordinary circumstances, getting into a shooting match with a red-hot McCollum and a looming Damian Lillard, who was laughably quiet for three quarters before deciding to instantaneous explode (13 of his 24 points came in the 4th), is a bad idea. For the Raptors though, with Lowry and Gasol playing off each other, Pascal Siakam (16 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists) looking decidedly unafraid, and Danny Green (11 points) always ready to make a clutch bucket, it now seems manageable. And when Leonard happens to go off for a game-leading 38 points on 14-of-22 shooting with five assists and three steals, it becomes easy to be downright bullish.
It was that crunch-time lineup that saw the Raptors stare down the flamethrowers on the Blazers. And it was Lowry’s aforementioned screen that freed up Kawhi to go in on Lillard for his patented baseline jumper for the win. This, after Leonard had single-handedly scored in every way possible, including by way of a few acrobatic lay-ups that looked decidedly impossible. After all that, with Kawhi’s jumper still in the air, it felt like there was no way he was going to miss. And he didn’t.
In total effect we see the kind of team the Raptors could be, the one that has no natural predators, the one able to run with and beat any NBA team. Yes, there’s a certain logic that says Toronto is still behind the Warriors, and maybe now even the Bucks, in the league’s natural hierarchy. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have a shot, wouldn’t make those other teams sweat. For stretches of tonight’s game against the Trail Blazers, a team travelling through their own Raptors-like quest for conference supremacy against the backdrop of playoff letdown, Toronto put it all in play. Their offense was high-powered, creative, and flexible; the defense was relentless, highly switchable, and sharp. They weathered the storm and struck back in the ways they knew they could. It’s why the team has now been assembled the way it has; this is where the Raptors want to be.
“I feel a little bit more concentration on trying to integrate these new guys because I think they believe these new guys have made us better,” said coach Nick Nurse on the process of figuring out these new Raptors. “[The team is] paying a little closer attention than they normally would this time of year in the film sessions. And they’re letting us keep them on the floor at practice a little longer at this time of year.
“I just feel there’s a little bit of a positive vibe going on towards let’s be good, let’s polish up the things we need to be good, let’s get these guys up to speed as quick as we can, let’s polish up what we need to polish, and let’s go to work.”
The reason we turn inward for tonight’s recap is because, well, there’s no natural narrative between Toronto and Portland, no real rivalry, no extant history, no bad blood; these two teams won’t see each other again for the rest of this season unless they make the Finals (which seems unlikely). As such, the best reason to reflect on this game is basic: as a measure of the Raptors’ performance against a quality opponent. And in that we find reason enough to care — and to feel that positive vibe too.