Foul trouble limited Marc Gasol in the Toronto Raptors' 120-117 win over the San Antonio Spurs back on Feb. 22, but it didn't prevent him from making an impact. The three-time All-Star dished out six assists in his 17 minutes off the bench, tying him with Pascal Siakam for team-high honours and setting what was then a personal best for him in a Raptors uniform.
While there are a couple of reasons why that figure is noteworthy - more on that soon - one of Gasol's assists in that game was a perfect example of the value he brings to a Raptors team hoping to make a title run this season.
The assist came following a missed shot from LaMarcus Aldridge. Patrick McCaw came up with the defensive rebound and immediately pushed the ball before passing it to Gasol, who was trailing the play, at the top of the 3-point line.
Norman Powell, meanwhile, ran to the corner next to McCaw, and Jeremy Lin and OG Anunoby parked themselves on the 3-point line on the opposite side of the court.
McCaw then exchanged places with Powell, with McCaw going to the corner and Powell going to the wing for what appeared to be a handoff between him and Gasol.
Knowing what was coming next, Marco Belinelli switched onto Powell and overplayed the handoff, but doing so opened up a clear driving lane for Powell to exploit.
If Gasol wasn't a capable outside shooter - Brook Lopez is the only centre to have made more 3-pointers than him over the last couple of seasons - Aldridge wouldn't have needed to follow him all the way out to the perimeter.
With him out of the paint and the other Spurs guarding perimeter players, nobody was standing between Powell and the rim when he made a backdoor cut.
Gasol led him perfectly to the basket by lobbing a pass over Aldridge's long arms, setting Powell up for a layup over Belinelli.
Few big men are as comfortable as Gasol operating from that area of the court. According to NBA.com, he's led the league in elbow touches per game in each of the last six seasons. He's also led the league in assists per game from the elbows in five of those six seasons, this season being the first time he hasn't since 2013-14, though he trails only Nikola Jokic by a small margin.
Even though his assist against the Spurs didn't quite come from the elbow, one of the five assists he handed out in Toronto's loss to the Orlando Magic a couple of days later did.
It was almost identical, only with Kyle Lowry selling the handoff as opposed to Powell.
As talented as they are, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas don't have those types of passes in their repertoire. Whereas Gasol has handed out five or more assists in more than 200 games in his NBA career, Ibaka and Valanciunas have combined for only four.
Ibaka and Valanciunas are both known far more for their scoring ability on offence, not their passing.
"He probably brings to this team something which they never had," Raptors assistant coach Sergio Scariolo told CBS Sports about Gasol. "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."
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Having a high level passer at the centre position should help the Raptors in a number of ways down the stretch of this season. As a reserve, Gasol gives the second unit a much needed go-to option, both as a scorer and facilitator. As a starter, Gasol gives the Raptors another playmaker, which could help head coach Nick Nurse bridge the gap between the two styles of offence they've played this season - the free flowing one when Lowry is in the game and the iso-heavy one when Kawhi Leonard is.
Gasol's presence could be most noticeable in crunch time, when Leonard's usage has skyrocketed to one of the highest rates in the league. Instead of relying entirely on him to create offence, Nurse will be able to run plays through Gasol in the post and elbows.
Lowry, Siakam and Danny Green might benefit the most from having Gasol on the floor in those situations because of how much attention he draws as a scorer and how unselfish he is as a passer.
There will come a time when Gasol's number is called in the closing minutes of a tight game. When it does, we already have a good idea of how he can take the Raptors to another level.
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