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OKLAHOMA CITY — You may notice some similarities between the Raptors these past few weeks and the group from a year ago.
No, not the one that got stonewalled by LeBron James and company … again. No, the one that played the game at its most entertaining, moving the basketball from a good shot until it found a great shot and then taking and making it.
We saw a lot of that last year, particularly with the famed — and severely missed — Bench Mob through the regular season. Once Fred VanVleet went down just before the playoffs, that version of beautiful basketball all but died. Even when he returned, not quite up to par, it remained AWOL and soon the Raptors were too, knocked out by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a franchise-altering four-game sweep.
The bench mob died with the graduation of Pascal Siakam to the starting five, so that brand of basketball, where the Raptors were concerned, all but died out as well. There have been moments of ball-sharing and moving — that win over Milwaukee on their court after that abomination in San Antonio in early January comes to mind — but nothing that seemed to have any staying power or consistency. Not until now anyway.
Say hello to Marc Gasol, the 7-foot-1 product of the Spanish National team that is the poster child for team play and a game that leaves a fan wondering why anyone on God’s green earth would ever pass up that shot only to choke on those words before they get past his teeth as a better shot is created and the ball easily finds the bottom of the well.
It’s how the game, when the game is played at its best, is supposed to look. That ISO stuff is nice and all and even necessary at times, but personally, I’ll take the pretty passing and the open look three with frozen pose release as the ball finds its intended target any day of the week.
That, more than anything else is how Gasol has changed the Raptors.
His passing ability, his vision, his unrelenting need to keep his teammates involved has brought this back to Toronto Raptors’ basketball.
And that’s not just one man’s opinion.
“We’ve made a pretty big emphasis on it lately,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of the added ball movement after the overtime win in Oklahoma City. “We’ve made a big emphasis on whenever you get in trouble throw it to Marc and start flying and that’s pretty good because he is going to find some passes. He’s going to keep that thing facilitating. He’s going to keep you moving. It’s one thing to cut but when you receive it once in a while … it’s like that receiver running that route hard. You got to throw him the ball once in a while and he does.”
Gasol’s love affair with the pass is contagious. He makes the pass and everyone suddenly starts giving up the rock for a better shot.
Still skeptical that this returning ball movement is just a passing fancy? Kawhi Leonard, he of the best ISO game, that can go get his own bucket any time he wants, is seeing it too.
“If we keep moving forward and moving the ball I think everyone will get involved in the game,” Leonard said in a pretty happy post-game locker room in Oklahoma City. “That’s how you win. Nobody is going to have those big games in the playoffs. It might be someone off the bench with five minutes, get four shots and produce. We just got to keep it going.”
It’s not a coincidence that since Gasol arrived, the Raptors’ three-point numbers have shot up rather dramatically.
The secret to improved three-point shooting, assuming you are dealing with basically the same level of talent, is more open looks and it’s ball movement that gets you those looks.
Consider point guard Fred VanVleet all-in with the arrival of Gasol and the impact he has had on the Raptors’ game.
“Just hope I get to play with him as long as he’s still around,” VanVleet said when asked about playing with Gasol. “He makes life a lot easier for a guy, especially a point guard. He’s a point guard’s dream to play with. We continue to grow and get better and figure each other out. We got 10 games or whatever to tighten things up but things are looking good for us.
“Any time you have three or four playmakers on the floor it makes life easier,” VanVleet said. “(Wednesday night) for the first 35 minutes of the game we threw it to (Gasol) at the top of the key and we just cut and screened and he was finding guys and making things work. He is definitely a huge bailout at the top of the key as a (centre).”
For his part Gasol is just happy to be playing the game he is most familiar with and most confident of winning with.
“If we keep playing the same way — playing unselfish, playing for one another. Sacrificing on both ends of the floor. If we keep doing that over and over again, good things normally happen.”
It also wasn’t a coincidence that the Raptors’ struggles in the fourth quarter Sunday night — by far their worst quarter in which they were outscored 32-18 — coincided with a lack of the ball movement compared to what they had demonstrated in the first three quarters.
“It’s fun to play that way because everyone is in rhythm,” Gasol said of the constantly moving basketball. “Everyone has a decision to make on every play and we are all unselfish to let it go through our hands and create a shot or create a movement or cut or screen for someone else. It is fun to play that way.
“I like it too because it translates defensively,” Gasol said. “When guys are unselfish offensively normally defensively you will take that step closer to your teammate and be willing to help them because everything is connected.”
Right now the Raptors are very much connected and plan on becoming more so over the final nine games.
By Mike Ganter
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019