Trust me, I don’t love writing those words, but I must: Marc Gasol ranks only behind Uncle Phil, Trevor Noah and Santa Claus in any arbitrary list of male role models. Unfortunately, he now possesses the lateral quickness of each of the people on that list, which is why Toronto may need to re-examine their big man strategy during their series versus the Celtics.
Just about everyone on the Raptors had an abysmal plus/minus after Game 1 during the Celtics. But Gasol’s time on the court stood out more than the others’. For someone lauded for his defensive awareness, Gasol looked hesitant in some defensive schemes. Sure, it is difficult to keep up with the many different defensive looks Nick Nurse tosses into a game. It is even harder to do so when your feet have been replaced with cinderblocks.
Questioning if Gasol can stay on the court during a semi-finals match up is almost akin to questioning the future of his NBA career. That makes me sad. So, let’s keep this short and sweet. In seven short, tidy video clips I’ll delineate how the Celtics took advantage of Gasol in the serie’s opener.
Targeting Gasol On The Perimeter
Coach Brad Stevens is surely aware that his counterpart, Nick Nurse, loves to toss in zone schemes at various points of the game. These schemes typically park Gasol near the hoop and restrict any chance a team has to drag him onto the perimeter. Therefore, when the Raptors were in man coverage, Boston pounced on opportunities to catch Gasol away from the paint. They did this largely through the pick-and-roll and dribble-handoffs, although some players went rogue and simply burned Gasol when the chance arose. Regardless, Gasol’s complete inability to hang with Celtics ball-handlers was obvious.
New phrase alert! NEW PHRASE ALERT! Gasol got medusa’d here by Jayson Tatum. Go back and watch him morph into a statue as Tatum blows by. Boston did this on handoffs, too; here, Gasol stunts towards the perimeter to stall Kemba Walker, but cannot recover in time to catch the rolling Robert Williams.
Gasol expressed more pick-and-roll defense concerns during a halftime buzzer beater play. Perhaps he wanted to sellout on Kemba, estimating that a shot was coming due to the dwindling game clock. Nonetheless, it is not pretty to look at.
Shoot, even Daniel Theis decided to get in on the action. Theis is an underrated athlete, but he shouldn’t be easily darting past big men on the perimeter. Toronto will find it hard to get consistent stops if Gasol cannot find a way to stay grounded near the paint. As we will see, however, he’s struggling in that area as well.
Beating Drop Coverage
Boston’s first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers revealed two truths. First, Gordon Hayward inarguably has the worst luck in professional basketball. Second, drop coverage is not a scheme you can successfully deploy against the likes of Tatum, Walker, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown.
Toronto threw multiple defensive schemes at Boston to find one that would stick. This led to Gasol spending several minutes in drop coverage. The Celtics were prepared, however. In this play, Gasol gets stuck in no-man’s land during a Walker/Williams pick-and-roll. Inexplicably, he fails to trust that Pascal Siakam will pick up Timelord, and Walker calmly nails the resulting midrange look, giving us flashbacks to the Sixers series.
Gasol’s lack of trust in that play is troublesome. Toronto’s defense is predicated upon buying into your role and having faith that teammates will execute properly. Perhaps that can be fixed by their next game. This next problem is harder to fix, though: drop coverage inherently surrenders a 2-on-1 opportunity during pick-and-rolls. Considering Tatum is hitting 50 percent of his 4.8 pull up triples per game this postseason, this coverage may need to change in a hurry.
Driving On Drop Coverage
The Celtics’ other big-time scorers (Smart, Brown and Walker) are not hitting postseason pull-up bombs at the same rate as Tatum. Still, they all remain credible threats, and the Raptors would rather drive them into help defense. Boston has simple, effective plays prepared for this scheme. This postseason, Theis currently ranks fifth in screen-assists per game. This is partially due to his re-screens during drop coverage. This technique is often used to render the dropper (in this case, Gasol) ineffective and open up a clear lane to the rim. If the Raptors rely on this specific coverage more, then expect Theis to work in tandem with ball-handlers in plays like the one below. Gasol is neither agile nor strong enough to maneuver around this type of screen.
What To Expect
Nick Nurse is not shy about mixing up his game plan when things are trending south. Was Gasol unplayable? Certainly not. Was he a fruitful area of attack for Boston? Absolutely. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gasol had a much shorter leash in Game 2.
It is probably too early in the series to make a starting lineup change. But going small could be the best option for Toronto, as Serge Ibaka is more capable of handling switches or drops. A lineup of Ibaka, Siakam, OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet is certainly small, but Boston is not exactly throwing out monster rotations either. Monitor this trend in Game 2.
Bonus – PODCAST ALERT: This week we had Blake Murphy of The Athletic on to discuss the Raptors/Celtics series. He went in-depth on some key match ups and coaching strategies. Listen and subscribe, thanks!