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Toronto Raptors

Marc Gasol is the key to the Toronto Raptors building a strong defence without Kawhi Leonard

Establishing oneself as the undisputed anchor of a successful NBA team is a status that's difficult to achieve, much less sustain.

Especially when it comes to debating the merits of a player averaging just 7.6 points and 6.3 rebounds on 42 percent shooting and in the midst of what is statistically the worst season of his career.

When it comes to Gasol, the traditional counting stats don't come remotely close to properly quantifying his profound impact. On the surface, those pedestrian per-game averages leaves plenty to be desired and could even spark chatter about whether or not Gasol should remain entrenched as the starter in Toronto.

But to lean solely on the box score is to ignore what's beyond apparent when watching the tape. It's not just that the Raptors are a better defensive team with Gasol on the floor, it's why they are a better defensive team that truly stands out. Not only are the Raptors allowing 6.0 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's in the game compared to on the bench, Gasol's presence allows Nurse to implement a mixed bag of aggressive schemes on the wings knowing that his veteran anchor can adjust and respond to nearly every counter thrown their way.

This was on full display earlier this season in the 93-92 squeaker over the Chicago Bulls in which Gasol and OG Anunoby were key in helping Toronto stop a three-game skid against a vastly inferior opponent. This game was a muckfest in which the offence was stuck in the mud in favour of a defensive showdown between Toronto's wily centre and Wendell Carter Jr.

MORE: Player grades for every Raptor this season

In the end, it all came down to a crucial stop in the final minute with Gasol turning away Lauri Markkanen on what would have been a go-ahead bucket.

"Marc did a good job." Lowry said after the game to The Athletic. "He talked to everybody through everything tonight. When you've got a guy like that anchoring the defence - and communication is always a big key for us."

In addition to his communication, Gasol's sheer size seemed played an equally large role as pointed out by Nurse. "He gets there and he squares you up, and he's just so big standing still - he doesn't really jump that high; he doesn't jump that often, either, which is also good - but he's got a big torso and long arms, and he got into them just enough. He cracked them a couple of times too pretty good, which I think may have helped for later on."

Take that for data

Whenever Gasol is on the floor, the Raptors only allow 41.8 points in the paint per 48 minutes, a figure that would rank second in the NBA behind only the Milwaukee Bucks. Gasol wreaks havoc on the interior attack of every opponent which in turn springs Toronto's deadly transition game in which Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet rank among the league's very best.

MORE: Where does each Raptor rank at their position?

Not only do the Raptors rank as he best fastbreak scoring team in the NBA, they're much more prolific at doing it whenever Gasol is in the game. He might not be draining transition 3s or finishing alley-oops, but make no mistake - Gasol's interior D is the unheralded secret sauce that deserves more attention.

That Toronto's stout D is at it's best when Gasol is on the floor isn't strictly due to on/off noise either. Toronto's best defensive lineups - regardless of who else is on the floor - have one thing in common: Marc Gasol. While defensive rating is not perfect science that always leads to the conclusion that defence is good or bad, it indicates trends, and what data like this reveals is that Toronto is simply a better team with the Catalan on the court.

In the first clip above, Gasol is able to effectively rotate and contest what should have been an easy bucket off a curl. It's certainly not your traditional post-up but it's the type of play that lends itself to Gasol allowing just 0.65 points per play on post-ups which ranks among the best in the NBA.

While those contests are great on their own, it's team defence where Gasol truly shows off his talent and his ability to anticipate, react and occupy space. He's never going to defy the basic laws of physics in the way that someone like Anthony Davis does, but it is the gray matter that makes up the difference as he leans on a basketball IQ that's Einstein-esque. His perceptive instincts and ability to process the totality of a play before it happens raises Gasol's stature and is what keeps him among the league's truly elite defensive players.

Even in 2020, it remains impossible to have an All-NBA defensive team conversation without mentioning his name.

Even just casual viewing of Raptors' games shows the obvious impact that Gasol has on the defensive end. His eyes chase and capture movement, distinguishing between real danger and picking up on tactical decoys, reacting to them in fractions of a second. His size and spacial recognition - particularly in the restricted area - results not only in blocked shots, but deflections on cutters and entry passes alike (Gasol's 1.6 deflections per game are slightly more than the 1.5 for two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert).

Every team that aspires to play with pace has to strike a delicate balance between leaking out and protecting the defensive glass. And in that sense, the Raptors have found in Marc Gasol the perfect orchestrator. Not only is he an ace at rotating to cause havoc, he's an adept passer that's able to gather off blocks, deflections and defensive rebounds to quickly lookahead for quick-hitting outlet passes. He might not thread highlight reel 50-foot chest passes like Kevin Love but there's an understated brilliance to the manner in which Gasol's quick-witted passing generates a maelstrom of an offensive attack for the Raptors.

Again, it all starts with Gasol.

The transition game is a two-way street of course and it's an area where Gasol is - SURPRISE! - underrated.

He's never going to chase down wings and pin shots on the glass or send balls 15 rows into the stands like LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

But he's no slouch either as once again Gasol's IQ and effort allows for routine disruption of what should be easy buckets. Good teams win on the margins and Gasol is an expert at doing little things well which ultimately add up over time.

In short, that the Raptors will enter the Disney World bubble with a firm grasp on the No. 2 seed in the East is no accident, even when addressing the elephant in the room that is the departure of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

Everything is born of a vertical and physical attack with a touch of freshness that makes them an exciting team to watch, and with an impeccably structured defense that's flexible to adapt to any opponent on a nightly basis. Above all else, that is the key for Toronto's sustained success on the heels of winning it all last June. Defence, does after all, win championships.

It's a team built on a defensive identity and supported by the ubiquitous and fortified pillar that is Marc Gasol.

The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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