• The big story from Game 1 is obviously Kawhi Leonard. The second story from Game 1 is Pascal Siakam. The most important story from Game 1 might just be a guy who had eight points, two rebounds and four assists in 26 minutes.

    Marc Gasol has been exactly as advertised for Toronto.

    His statistical output has declined, and his usage dipped from 23.5 in February to 16.5 in March and 12.9 in April. He’s now sporting a career-low 12.2 usage through the first six games in the postseason.

    Despite ending fewer possessions than ever, Gasol is posting a blistering .271 Win Shares per 48 minutes in the playoffs, easily a career-high. It ranks him eighth in the league among players who have logged 100 minutes this postseason. Gasol has been able to produce top-flight value without commanding the ball, lifting the Raptors substantially on both ends.

    Gasol’s effect has been comprehensive, with his tendencies and influence seeping into every facet of the game.

    On offense, the Raptors spent most of the season shifting between two gears: Let Kawhi Score and Move The Ball. The lack of continuity brought about by injuries and load management meant that Kawhi Leonard was left to operate on a quasi-island, a separate entity from the rest of the Raptors’ desired offense. The acquisition of Gasol infused the team with another level of playmaking and has bridged the gap between Toronto’s offensive mindsets.

    Kawhi isn’t involved in this sequence, but this is not the type of play that the Raptors would bust out regularly pre-Gasol:

    Prior to the trade deadline, the Raptors’ season-high for assist percentage was a flat 60.0 in January, which placed them 17th in the league for the month. They were essentially average in the category all season up to that point, though they did dip to 25th in December with an assist rate of 54.7. In February, the Raptors rocketed up to third in the league at 68.0. In March they finished sixth at 63.9 and they ranked eighth at 64.0 through five games in April.

    What’s more, the Raptors are converting shots on passes from Gasol at incredible rates.

    Those numbers are from Gasol’s 19 regular season games with the Raptors. Small sample size, of course, but the impact was apparent for everyone in Toronto’s playoff rotation that regularly catches passes from Gasol (sorry, Serge Ibaka). Life has been better for all the Raptors and Nick Nurse can still keep Leonard and Siakam’s individual brilliance in the back pocket when things get hectic.

    Defensively, you don’t have to look much further than the first round against Orlando to see the type of impact that Gasol can have.

    During the regular season, Nikola Vucevic was able to toy with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, averaging 20.0 points, 15.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.5 turnovers on 55.0 percent from the field in four matchups with the Raptors. In the postseason, Gasol put Vucevic in the torture rack, limiting him to 11.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.6 turnovers while shooting just .362 from the field over five games.

    Vucevic saw Gasol as the primary defender on 191 of his 287 offensive possessions, going 13-of-39 from the field while committing five offensive fouls. Orlando as a whole only scored 171 points on those possessions, while Gasol accounted for 10 of Toronto’s 42 steals over the course of the series.

    Furthermore, Gasol completely changed the way the game was played – Vucevic’s usage dipped from 27.3 in the regular season to just 23.9 in the playoffs as he was unable to get anything going. Not only was Toronto able to stifle Orlando’s top talent, but they were also able to funnel those extra shots to mostly poor shooters. Among the Magic regulars who saw usage increases in the playoffs? Aaron Gordon (21.1 to 22.7), D.J. Augustin (16.7 to 17.1), Michael Carter-Williams (14.2 to 18.6) and Wes Iwundu (12.3 to 16.0). Fire away.

    Joel Embiid and the Sixers provide a much stiffer test, but the results from Game 1 were encouraging combined with Gasol’s ownership of the regular season matchup. In two previous games against Embiid (both as a member of the Grizzlies) this season, Gasol limited him to 17 points on 6-of-18 shooting in 108 possessions, coaxing seven turnovers to just five assists while also breaking even with three fouls going either way.

    The trend continued on Saturday, with Embiid shooting 1-for-8 for three points in 29 possessions against Gasol. Although there were a few looks that Embiid would usually make, Gasol once again turned in a masterful effort. It was a rude awakening following a first-round cakewalk against an overmatched Jarrett Allen and the Nets. Against an opponent that he could neither outmuscle nor outsmart, Embiid ran into a brick wall.

    There was no stroll into the paint:

    There was no easy way to get to his preferred spots:

    There was passivity:

    *****

    For the Raptors, Game 1 was filled with moments. Some were a testament to sheer brilliance. Some served as an emphatic garnish on the night. Others were more symbolic in the context of the team – what they have been before, what they are now and what they may still become.

    But the other, smaller moments may be more instructive. Gasol is putting on a masterclass right now, with almost every possession putting another tool from his kit on display. Those small moments add up to 5-for-18 shooting on one end and 50 uncontested shots on the other. Look closely enough, and you’ll be able to see the Raptors’ DNA changing.

    An adjustment is surely coming, but for the first time in franchise history, the Raptors might be equipped to fight through it.

    Other Observations

    1 – Joel Embiid finished plus-4 in his 30 minutes on the floor. Single-game, unadjusted plus-minus is often rather misleading, but on a night where pretty much everyone else outside of the garbage time crew was a comfortable negative, it’s at least somewhat informative. We’ll see how the Sixers try and keep Embiid fresh in order to extend his minutes as the series goes on. He scored 11 of his 16 points with Gasol on the bench.

    2- Counter to that, we’ll see if Nick Nurse changes his substitution patterns at all. Embiid got the clamps from Gasol but was able to get into some rhythm at the top of the second when the Raptors went small with Serge Ibaka and the bench group. The Raptors aren’t in a position to be tweaking much after taking this one without much drama, but that’s something to watch. Odds are we’ll see Gasol back in quickly to plug the leaks on at least one night in this series. Him getting to sit the entire fourth quarter might end up being a big development from a load management standpoint.

    3 – Speaking of Ibaka, this was the second time in the postseason that he’s responded from a bad first half with a great showing in the second. Those Ibaka-Embiid minutes are the one real attack point for Philadelphia that emerged from Game 1. Nurse had two chances to pull the chute on Ibaka at the tops of the second and fourth quarters but decided to stick to his guns and ended up being rewarded. It’s something to watch for going forward, especially with Ibaka just barely skirting early foul trouble.

    4 – Boban Marjanovic isn’t going to work in this series. We’ll see more Jonah Bolden as a result, as his athleticism at least gives him a shot at holding up on defense. The fact that he can stretch the floor a bit will help out too, though Mike Scott’s absence is quietly going to play a large role here.

    5 – Furkan Korkmaz got the first crack at Scott’s vacated minutes. It’s not going to work if he doesn’t knock down his shots, though you could probably say that of most players on the floor. Jonathon Simmons might give Philly more on the defensive end but their half-court game was stuck in mud with Kawhi Leonard keeping Ben Simmons from initiating. Jonathon’s minutes might only exacerbate the problem. Perhaps T.J. McConnell can provide something of a happy medium, even if that doesn’t help the spacing. It’s fair to question how much the Sixers can reasonably expect to have quality spacing with this roster, anyway. James Ennis will have to build on his solid game here.

    6 – Kyle Lowry is going to draw a ton of offensive fouls in this series since he can cheat off of anyone besides Redick to slip into the paint. He was once again all over the floor, dropping another eight dimes, a steal and a block with just one turnover while bodying bigger players in the paint and keeping the offense flowing. He hit a key jumper to stop a run in the third quarter and did a nice job pushing the pace when the opportunities were there. Stop evaluating him as the score-first guy he was a couple years back.

    7 – This might be a good series for Patrick McCaw to flex his defensive muscle a bit, though again it’s unlikely that it happens until Philadelphia lands a counterpunch and forces some adjustments.

    8 – One wonders if Toronto spending so much energy keeping the lid on Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier last round makes them better equipped to handle J.J. Redick. Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Danny Green all took turns there and while the coverage might be a little bit different it’s clear that they’re content to let Philadelphia’s non-shooters try to outwork the lengthier Raptors from inside the arc so long as the paint is clogged.

    9 – That said, the big job still went to Kawhi Leonard, who stomped out a potential run when Redick got hot in the third quarter, and later clamped Redick right back up in the fourth after he hit his fifth and final triple of the evening. Redick’s run in the third cut it to 68-64. Kawhi started guarding him and the Raptors put up 13 straight points. The luxury of throwing an all-world defender on whoever might be heating up without blowing a huge hole open elsewhere is just something that most teams won’t have.

    10 – Kawhi’s pretty good.

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