NEW YORK — Fred VanVleet did not expect the ball to fly his way. It was the end of the first quarter of the Toronto Raptors‘ first game with Marc Gasol, and the point guard had run a pick-and-roll with his new teammate. VanVleet delivered the bounce pass and stopped, thinking Gasol would go get a bucket. The next thing he knew, he was scurrying back behind the 3-point line and squaring up.
“I had a wide-open 3,” VanVleet told CBS Sports after Toronto’s 104-99 win on Saturday over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. “It kind of caught me off-guard. I haven’t been caught off-guard for a long time by a pass.”
VanVleet estimated that 99 percent of big men would have shot the ball. Gasol, the 34-year-old three-time All-Star acquired at the trade deadline, made a better read. The only problem was that VanVleet was too open.
“I was way open,” VanVleet said. “There was no way I was making that shot. I just wasn’t even thinking of shooting the ball. But that obviously speaks to what he brings.”
Gasol had seven points, six rebounds, one assist, two steals and a block in 19 minutes in his Raptors debut. Coach Nick Nurse, however, noted that their offense simply flowed when he was in the game. His teammates cut with purpose, used his screens and found easy shots. They just didn’t make many of them.
In a span that lasted less than three-and-a-half minutes, Gasol created that 3 and a layup for VanVleet, plus two in-rhythm, unguarded 3s for Norman Powell. In the third quarter, he appeared to surprise even veteran Kyle Lowry when he whipped the ball underhanded from the left block to the opposite wing. He delivered Powell what should have been an easy two points at the rim, too.
“He caught a lot of those guys off-guard,” Toronto wing Danny Green told CBS Sports. “They’re not expecting it as much, you know? Most of the guys in the league don’t expect that. He’s such a great passing big. It’s hard. You gotta be ready at all times.”
Gasol, whose Raptors are back in action on Monday against the Nets (7:30 p.m. ET — watch on fuboTV), has not had much time to learn all the terminology and wrinkles in Nurse’s system. He watched the Raptors’ previous two games and participated in a light shootaround, amazing several members of the organization with how quickly he processed information. At MSG, he went over film with Toronto assistant coach Sergio Scariolo, who first coached against him in Spain when Gasol was 18, a full five years before his NBA debut. The two of them have a long, medal-winning history together, as Scariolo doubles as the coach of Spain’s national team.
“He probably brings to this team something which they never had,” Scariolo said. “A type of player who never was in this team. He basically is a great passer, somebody who sees the next play a split-second before most of the opponents. And most of the teammates as well. Most of the coaches, sometimes.”
The Raptors suddenly have the luxury of playing through Gasol on the elbows, where he has been picking apart defenses for a decade. His ability to make plays out of the pick-and-roll might be equally important. These are the things the Raptors had tried to teach Jonas Valanciunas to do, but “he was working his way into that,” VanVleet said. “Marc has been established for a while now.” Having a center who is a threat from everywhere introduces a world of possibility, especially for a coach known for his creativity.
Toronto wants to be improvisational and unpredictable, and that style works a lot better with high-IQ players. You can expect the Raptors to add to their playbook, but the bigger change will be how Gasol opens up options that are already there, but rarely used.
“Marc’s going to see all those options, he’s going to find you if you’re open,” Green said. “A lot of times, we’ll get to the one option, the one that you know is probably going to open or the one that was safe or the one that we’re trying to play for a certain someone. He’s looking for everybody. So you’ve gotta be very aware and attentive, seeing the ball when it’s coming. I’m not complaining about it.”
“How much he f—–g kicked our ass,” Green said.
This might seem surprising, as Memphis only won one of those series and Gasol didn’t have many high-scoring playoff games. The Grizzlies were always tough, though, and Gasol was never easy to scout.
“He can score, but he’s not a guy that’s looking to score,” Green said. “He’s looking to play basketball the right way.”
Green repeatedly said he is looking forward to playing more minutes with Gasol and seeing him make the team more dangerous. “Once he starts getting comfortable, look out,” Green said. Thanks to his experience and intelligence, no one expects this to take long. On the possession where he scored his first points as a Raptor, Gasol passed twice and set two bone-crushing screens.
“Man, he’s just a pleasure to play with as a point guard,” VanVleet said. “He’s a big point guard out there. He’s super smart — obviously, we knew that, but to see it up close and just to see his reads and his unselfishness and just the way he moves the ball was really fun.”
Gasol made it sound like the Raptors were helping him as much as he hoped to help them, thanking Memphis for trading him to a contender. Gasol is a Grizzlies icon — they have already announced they will retire his jersey — but he hasn’t won a playoff series since 2015. It was time. Perhaps it was past time. Either way, his kids are excited to meet a new mascot.
Shortly after the news broke, Gasol got a call from Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri. He heard from some of his new teammates, too. Everyone talked about making a run at the title, and he is all-in. “That gets your juices going,” Gasol said, adding that he is aware he will only have 26 regular-season games to prepare for the playoffs.
“It’s like, ‘OK, this is it,'”Gasol said. “You’re going for the chance to go to the very top. What else can you ask for as a player?”
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