If it’s unclear in that header image, buried as he is by the multitude of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s limbs, that’s Raptors centre Marc Gasol getting his shot viciously blocked in last night’s Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks won handily, 125-103, and that outcome was never in question. Especially if you saw poor Marc get his shot erased in those opening minutes. Right then, you knew.
That the Raps were annihilated in Game 2 is not all on Gasol. Unlike in the series’ first contest, Toronto’s entire defensive presence felt like it was missing. There was Giannis collecting his own miss for a powerful dunk. There he was again for a second slam. The Raptors were down 9-0 before they even knew the game had started, with a pair of turnovers, a pair of missed threes (from Gasol and Danny Green), and the added indignity of watching not one but two of Marc’s attempts from close range get sent back in his face. The header image above was the first, the second came about through the patience of Brook Lopez. What a world.
Not to dogpile on Gasol, who really is a lovable character on the Raptors — and one of the best defensive big men of recent memory — but in his 19 minutes he managed just two points on 1-of-9 shooting, plus five rebounds and one assist. Unlike in Game 1, when his presence on the court was justified by his defensive acumen, Gasol looked a step behind everything last night. There was just no zip on anything he tried on offense, and the Bucks knew it. Toronto eventually downsized, leaning on more Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell minutes, while trying to find some way to get Pascal Siakam going. But it was to no avail.
(There’s a whole other post to make about what’s going on with Siakam, to be honest. He is in my mind without a doubt the league’s Most Improved Player, but he also appears to have hit his ceiling on the year. Look, it was bound to happen eventually. After solving things against the lesser lights of the Orlando Magic, and finding ways to contribute in the face of the man mountain known as Joel Embiid, this Bucks team is ideally suited to opening a door for Siakam only to shut it right in his face. Much like Giannis’ own year-over-year improvements, I would not bet against Siakam in the future. But it’s clear some work still needs to be done. Here’s hoping! End of parenthetical!)
Gasol, to his credit, knew what had happened and knew what part he played in the Raptors’ downfall. By the time he was putting a pass attempt off the rim, or watching a pocket pass plonk off his leg (much to Kawhi Leonard’s chagrin), everyone — including the man himself — knew it was not his night. “I played really bad and that set the tone,” he said afterwards. “The beginning put us in a real bad spot and we couldn’t get a grip of the game early on, and I take full responsibility for that.”
Now, not to add to the frustration here, but in Game 2 we saw the thing we knew would happen with Gasol’s counterpart Lopez. After his comical 29-point explosion in Game 1, Lopez had just six points in Game 2, on 1-of-7 shooting (and 0-of-4 from three). Yes, Lopez blocked Gasol early on, and sent a clear message to the Raptors, but he was not the all-consuming force he appeared to be in the series’ first game. Far from being a relief though, Lopez’ absence in the box score just highlighted how good these Bucks really are.
And why’s that? Well, the leader in plus/minus for Milwaukee in Game 2 was none other than Ersan Ilyasova, long time Raptor killer and Lopez’ de facto back-up at centre. That’s right, the big Turk gave the Bucks 17 points (second in scoring behind Giannis’ 30) on 7-of-11 shooting to finish a +22 on the night in just 21 minutes. By the second quarter, Milwaukee’s lead had gotten as big as 25 points, and Ersan was draining Dirk Nowitzki-esque fadeaways. Toronto had no answer for him, or for Giannis, or for almost anyone else on the Bucks. Yes, the Raps eventually did score 39 points in the third quarter, and briefly got Milwaukee’s lead (and their attention) down to a mere 13 points, but it was not nearly enough.
We’ve been saying it for most of this Raptors post-season run, when Toronto gets the good stuff from players like Gasol (and Green, and Lowry, and Ibaka, etc.) they look absolutely unbelievable. When the big Spaniard was shutting down Nikola Vucevic, we cheered; when he was the lone man to slow Embiid, we were pleased; even when he helped wall off the paint in Game 1 against the Bucks, we knew Gasol was doing his job.
But now the gas tank may be running on empty, and unless Toronto can figure out a way to imbue their starting centre with some new confidence — on both ends of the floor — this could be a short series for Gasol. And for the Raptors too.